Column: Sweet redemption
By Avi Zaleon
Verdell Jones III knew it all along.
The victories, the return and the redemption — it would all happen at some point.
“I saw the vision that Coach (Tom) Crean had,” he said. “I saw where this program could go from the time I was coming in. I saw us working hard every day, so I knew that it had to change. I knew that we were going to win sooner or later. There’s just no way if you work that hard every day and put in the sacrifices that we did, it would continue to be the same.”
Jones III and the IU seniors have paid their dues. Now they’re seeing the results.
No longer the doormat of the Big Ten and their rivals, the Hoosiers have defeated the top three teams in the conference this season, in addition to perennial rivals Kentucky, Illinois and Purdue.
“The past three years, everybody took their jabs at us,” Jones said. “‘Indiana’s down, let’s kick ‘em while they’re down,’ and this year, we’re getting a little payback.”
In their freshman year, these seniors were spanked by 18 points in Rupp Arena.
The following season, John Wall and the ‘Cats put on a show for the crowd at Assembly Hall on their way to 17-point win.
Kentucky wiped its feet on the Hoosiers in last year’s installment of the annual rivalry to the tune of a 19-point victory.
Jones said he remembers the losses being worse than they were, but I’m sure the revenge was just that much sweeter.
“It’s supposed to be the best team that Calipari’s had,” he said. “For us to beat them and compete with Ohio State and beat Michigan State, who’s supposed to be a Final Four team this year, it just feels good to finally beat the teams that we haven’t been able to beat.”
Do not dare define this senior class by its struggles.
True, this season is an incredible story because of the unprecedented improvement that has occurred. If the night is darkest just before the dawn, then the Hoosiers went to sleep in an underwater cave before rising to the morning sun.
But what makes this group memorable is the winning this season.
“I think the stories and experiences we went through are going to be there, but if I’m going to show film five, 10 years down the road, obviously I’m going to gravitate back to the things we’ve achieved this year,” senior guard Matt Roth said.
The three seasons of losing add context to the Hoosiers’ magical run this year, but even without considering the bad times, this team has still been flat-out good.
No other IU squad in the history of the program has beaten three top-5 teams in the regular season.
Think about that. All the championships, Knight, McCracken, the All-Americans, nobody has ever accomplished that feat. And for this squad to do so as underdogs each time? Wow.
Even with these signature victories, Jones said he still laments the losses, the ones against Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota that shouldn’t have happened.
“We’ve worked too hard to lose games like we have,” he said. “I think the most sickening part is after we lose, you’re thinking back on the game, ‘Man, if I just did this, if I just did that,’ we could been 25-5 or whatever. The losses are more disheartening now than they have been before.”
Winning might be the most addictive drug for the Hoosiers. For three years, IU could only get the occasional fix, the soft stuff that shouldn’t even give you that high, like wins at home against Minnesota and Iowa.
But now they’ve moved on to the real bad stuff — Kentucky, Ohio State, Michigan State and one of the ultimate highs you have to go out of state for, the NCAA
“I think we’ll be fine,” Jones said of the Hoosiers’ inevitable NCAA Tournament berth. “We never expected this, so we have nothing to lose, really.”
I’m tired of writing about the past, lamenting the losses and crying about spilled milk. That’s why Jones’ personal struggles and complicated relationship with fans and media isn’t mentioned after this period.
It’s time to look forward and put the past where it belongs.
Before you is a winning team on the brink of making a run in the NCAA Tournament. The five seniors built a foundation, but that foundation only gains meaning when the house built on it is as pristine as the foundation is strong.
“If you’re part of the group that helps rebuild something like this,” Jones said, “you’ll be remembered forever.”
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