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Column: Persevering from the post

That is what surprised senior forward Tom Pritchard the most on his first day at IU.
Not the scandal that rocked the foundations of Indiana basketball to spawn an unprecedented rebuilding project. Not that the squad he would be playing on was bringing back a combined average of just 12.8 minutes and 1.6 points per game from the prior season in Kyle Taber and Brett Finklemeier.

“I got (to IU), and he was a lot smaller than I had thought when I looked him up in videos and stuff,” Pritchard said. “That was probably the biggest surprise.”

It was perhaps the greatest example of positive thinking — or perhaps blissful ignorance — I had ever heard.

But that kind of mindset has helped Pritchard persevere through three years of basketball hell and come out clean on the other side.

“I don’t read any newspaper articles or anything,” Pritchard said. “My mom reads that stuff all the time, and she tries to tell me, and I’m like, ‘I’m not having it.’”

During Pritchard’s first three seasons, maybe this was for the best.

A three-star recruit coming out of Westlake, Ohio, Pritchard was going to be the starting big man in Crean’s first season as IU head coach.

Not one of the big men — the only big man.

Granted, there was Taber, Tijan Jobe and Broderick Lewis, but trust me when I tell you Pritchard, undersized to combat other Big Ten centers, had virtually no depth behind him.

After the 2008 Hoosier Hysteria, then-IDS columnist Zachary Osterman shared his forecast of the IU frontcourt after seeing the first practice.

“The inside game could be a bit of an issue,” Osterman wrote in a column. “But I think we knew that already.”

In his freshman year, the 6-foot-9, 245-pound bruiser got off to a promising start. Pritchard was the only Hoosier that year to start all 31 games. He averaged 9.7 points per game and was eighth in the Big Ten with 6.4 rebounds per game. That season, he recorded five double-doubles. They would be his last.

Pritchard’s sophomore and junior campaigns saw dips in his minutes, points, blocks and rebounds. The calvary had arrived in Bloomington, and Pritchard was reduced to being defined by a single stat — the foul.

In his sophomore year, Pritchard averaged the sixth-most minutes per game on the team but compiled the most fouls with 98. The next season, Pritchard again played the sixth-most minutes per game and still committed the most personal fouls.

Through the losing, the criticism and the tough times, Pritchard has never stopped pushing through the adversity.

“My parents were always there, win or lose,” he said. “They’ve really helped me through everything and teaching me to just keep working.”

It wasn’t just Pritchard who was struggling.

Guard Maurice Creek suffered a pair of season-ending injuries, guard Jeremiah Rivers — who transferred from Georgetown — did not pan out the way some had hoped and an underwhelming 2010 campaign caused grumbles from an impatient sect of the Hoosier fan base.

Indiana’s coming back, they were told, but when?

“I remember our freshman year not a lot of people were talking to us, not a lot of people were going to the games, but we still worked hard,” Pritchard said. “One of our things was trying to get every one back to IU.”

It was always about persevering to break through a wall of doubt to reach an unknown reward for all the sacrifice.

“There’s always a reason you go through adversity, and some days are worse than others, but at the end of the day, you knew that we were moving forward and making progress,” senior guard Matt Roth said.

So when did the Hoosiers break through that wall? Many, including Pritchard, said they believe it came Nov. 30, 2011, when IU traveled to NC State and picked up the first ACC/Big Ten Challenge victory of the Crean era.

“The road win at NC State, that felt awesome because we were down six or seven with eight minutes to go, and all of our seniors are thinking, ‘We’ve been here before, and we’ve never been able to make anything of it,’” Pritchard said, referring to the
inability to close out games. “But we looked past that and told ourselves this was a new year, and all the guys this year really persevered, and we ended up winning that game.”

Now this team and its deserving seniors have seen their hard work pay off in the form of one of the most surprising seasons in IU basketball history. Pritchard has become a fan favorite and has eased into his role as a reserve, utilizing his rebounding and
defensive skills.

But what if things were different? What if then-IU Coach Kelvin Sampson decided to put his cell phone back in his pocket and the subsequent collapse of the program
never occurred?

“That would have been the easy way,” senior guard Daniel Moore said. “It probably would have been easier and nicer, but I truly believe that the reason that we’re at where we are at right now is because of the hard times we’ve had over the last three years. What we were has made us who we are now.”

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