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HOWEY: Gods and life at the Center of the Basketball Universe

The March Madness of 2021 cemented Indiana as sacred hardwood. Hope springs eternal.

INDIANAPOLIS — If there was a silver lining after a horrible year of pandemic, it was that the Hoosier Hoops Holyland and its ancient cathedral (Hinkle Fieldhouse, among other venues) would become the Center of the Basketball Universe during March Madness.

The pandemic has been a cruel arbiter. When it surfaced in March 2020, games were literally ended at halftime, Butler’s Bulldogs had been ranked No.5 in the nation just a month before, and Indiana Coach Archie Miller was looking at his first tournament in three years at the helm. There would be no crowned champion.

By the time the Pandemic March Madness unfolded last month, ominous trends began to emerge. Purdue was the lone state team to make the field. Archie Miller had been fired. Brad Stevens wasn’t interested in a move to Bloomington, even though his eighth year at the helm of the Boston Celtics was underwhelming, fueling speculation of dismissal. The pandemic field was not only missing IU, but Duke and Kentucky as well. Kansas and North Carolina missed the Sweet 16.

For the next two weeks, it appeared the basketball gods were punking us. Purdue continued its March Madness futility, losing to tough North Texas State, ruining about 90% of brackets in the state. Half the IU team had entered the transfer portal. The powerful Big Ten’s nine entries quickly faded despite early round games at familiar Assembly Hall and Mackey Arena. And when the Final Four was forged, who showed up? Houston Coach Kelvin Sampson, who had been the poster boy of IU’s post-1987 futility.

The notion that the Cheatin’ Sampson might cut down the nets at Lucas Oil Stadium was of peculiar karma for the Hoosier nation.

But then the clouds parted, a shaft of sunlight appeared, and angels began singing. Gene Keady showed up for a reunion at Bob Knight’s new Bloomington digs. Mike Woodson was lured away from the New York Knicks to take the helm at IU, pleasing The General. After two decades since Knight was fired by Myles Brand during his “zero tolerance” era, IU decided to arm its stalled franchise with someone from the Knight coaching tree.

“We are all very pleased to have Mike Woodson as the person in charge of leading our program,” Knight said. “He will do an excellent job. He will be an outstanding disciplinarian and teacher working with his team. He is just a great man.”

Former Ohio State and Butler coach Thad Matta was brought on board to head the university’s basketball operations. Former IU player Dane Fife left Tom Izzo’s Cadillac Michigan State program to join Woodson. All Big Ten Trayce Jackson-Davis announced he was coming back for his junior season and IU’s transfer portal dried up.

Scott Drew, a Butler graduate who began reviving his Baylor Bears program 18 years ago, delivered a swift emphatic kick to Coach Sampson in the semifinals, ending that potential offensive spectacle.

Bobby Plump became hot property again. The IU women’s team made the Elite Eight down in San Antonio and return five starters for next year. The New York Times featured a full-page story by Billy Witz on Hinkle Fieldhouse and quoted 91-year-old Gene Hackman as describing a day of prep during the filming of “Hoosiers.”

“We...rehearsed for a day or so without an audience, so by the time the actual scenes were shot, we were accustomed to the space,” said Hackman, playing Coach Norman Dale, who famously got the tape measure out to confirm the height of the rim, the depth of the foul line. “But it was still somewhat overwhelming.”

We heard stories of how Tony Hinkle opted for a train trip back to Butler U. instead of joining Miller Huggins’ New York Yankee Bronx Bomber dynasty. We learned that in the first state prep finals more than a century ago, the Morristown team got drunk on bourbon at halftime and the Crawfordsville team played with fevered cojones.

Like Hackman’s “Hoosiers” practice, the 2021 Final Four was played before nearly vacant stands, but with a riveted national TV audience. A 35-foot bankshot at the buzzer in OT by Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs sidelined UCLA in the semifinals. John Feinstein (author “Season on the Brink” about Coach Knight), observed in a column for the Indianapolis Business Journal, “This is the 41st time I have attended the Final Four. I have never seen anything like this version. And I hope never to see anything like it again. It’s being in a ghost town.”

The pandemic stalked the tournament, with the University of Virginia exiting before the first round due to a COVID outbreak, while a fan from Alabama tested positive before dying, and St. Elmo closed when nine employees tested positive, and a veteran bartender passed away.

Then Scott Drew joined the championship ranks of Johnny Wooden, Branch McCracken and Knight with an emphatic 86-70 throttling of the Zags in Monday night’s final game.

Credit: AP Photo/Darron Cummings
Baylor players and coaches celebrate with the trophy after the championship game against Gonzaga in the men's Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament, Monday, April 5, 2021, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Baylor won 86-70.

The March Madness of 2021 cemented Indiana as sacred hardwood. Hope springs eternal. ESPN has Purdue ranked No. 3 for next season. We’re all gonna make it through this together.

The columnist is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com. Find Howey on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.