As Indiana seeks bright future, it confronts its dark past on path to potential Elite 8 berth
Mike Woodson has led a quick turnaround at Indiana, bringing stability to a program that needed it after a wayward couple decades.
And the future appears bright, even after this season — IU is the 4th-seed in the Midwest Region, taking on 13-seed Kent State late Friday night — as Woodson’s Hoosiers look to keep the program’s momentum by rebuilding quickly following the impending departure of All-American Trayce Jackson-Davis and potential early exit of freshman superstar Jalen Hood-Schifino. But as Indiana appears on an upward trajectory, it won’t have to look far to see its dark past.
When Indiana takes the floor in Albany, N.Y., for its 1st-round game, it’ll face former assistant coach Rob Senderoff, now the Golden Flashes’ head coach, who was forced to resign from the Hoosiers’ program in disgrace in October 2007 in the midst of the discovery of more recruiting violations from then-IU head coach Kelvin Sampson. Indiana tried to make Senderoff the fall man for Sampson, who had committed major violations in his previous stop at Oklahoma before doing so again in Bloomington, but it didn’t work. A year after Senderoff was sent packing, Sampson was too, forced to resign over the on-going scandal.
Arguably, the episode sent Indiana’s program spinning its wheels, starting a stretch of a dozen years in which the Hoosiers made the NCAA Tournament only 4 times, never advancing past the Sweet 16. Until Woodson arrived last year, IU had gone 4 straight seasons without a bid to the Big Dance.
Now here is Indiana, facing off not only against Senderoff’s Kent State team on Friday, but with the potential of matching up with Sampson’s Houston Cougars in the Sweet 16 next week. Maybe no better way to erase the dark past, maybe the darkest in Indiana’s rich history, than by facing it head on, and the Hoosiers get that opportunity.
After his unceremonious departure from IU, Senderoff found a soft landing spot at Kent State, a rarity for a coach given an NCAA “show-cause” penalty. Generally, programs steer clear of scarred coaches, because NCAA sanctions travel with them to their new jobs, but KSU was willing to overlook 30 months of recruiting limitations when it hired him as its associate head coach. Three seasons later, after the penalty period ended, Senderoff was named the Golden Flashes’ head coach.
Perhaps time has helped all parties move on. Indiana is in a better place now, and so is Senderoff. It probably helps too that the violations Senderoff was accused of in 2006-07 would no longer be impermissible under current NCAA rules. Earlier this week, Senderoff was asked about his time at IU, particularly how it ended.
“It’s a fair question,” Senderoff told the Kevin & Query morning show on “The Fan” in Indianapolis. “To me, the tournament shouldn’t be about me. It should be about me and my players. But it’s certainly a fair question to ask. I think I’ve owned up to all of my mistakes at IU. The (NCAA) rules are no longer the rules, but at the time they were. Those are mistakes that I’ve owned up to and I still do to this day. I accept responsibility for what I did, which was make phone calls that I wasn’t supposed to have made. I take ownership for that; I’m not going to shy away from that.”
Senderoff wants to focus as much on the game Friday night as possible, and so does Indiana. The Hoosiers missed out on a couple of their regular-season goals, falling short in the race for either of the Big Ten titles. But there were highlights, like sweeping rival Purdue and earning one of the top 16 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. But getting to the Sweet 16 — a matchup with Sampson would be an unavoidable national storyline — and perhaps beyond would be a significant step forward as Indiana looks to regain its national prominence. IU is a 4.5-favorite vs. Kent State, then would likely have a narrow edge vs. Miami (Fla.) or Drake in Round 2.
And once Friday’s game tips, nobody is going to care about what happened in Indiana’s program 15 years ago. Woodson barely had anything to say about it when asked earlier this month, mentioning that he had met Sampson when he had spoken to the Hoosiers’ team back then, and maybe had run into Senderoff in passing. But that’s about it. Senderoff is ready to play the game, too.
“Certainly there’s some click-bait that people want to bring that up and I get that,” he told Kevin & Query, “but the story of the NCAA Tournament is really the story of the players and programs and how they get there.”