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Old glory, new story for IU’s recruiting plan

Program rise helps, but today’s players aren’t state-focused.

College basketball practice has started, signing day looms in just over a month and speculation is everywhere Cream ‘n Crimson faithful gather.

Who’s next on Indiana’s get list? Is it Goodluck Okonoboh? Devin Robinson? Is the Tom Crean recruiting juggernaut slipping? Why would James Blackmon blow up a Hoosier deal for – are you kidding! – Kentucky?

So what is the state of IU recruiting now that the program has regained national acclaim?

“It’s a weeding-out process,” says Indiana assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Kenny Johnson. “Coach Crean has always tried to recruit from a position of power. We can’t talk specifics about recruiting, so people might not understand the method to the madness, but it has never been about the credential of the player. It’s always been about the fit. Understanding what you need. What your vision is, and how you want to continue building the program.

“It’s pretty obvious we want versatile players. We want intelligence and great character.”

He pauses. Smiles.

“The ability to shoot never hurts.”

It took Crean three years – and one Cody Zeller – to overcome the Kelvin Sampson mess. IU has made two straight Sweet 16s. It is the defending Big Ten champion. Last year it was ranked No. 1 for 10 weeks and earned a No. 1 NCAA tourney seed. Even with the early departure of Zeller and Victor Oladipo to the NBA, plus the graduation of key seniors Christian Watford, Jordan Hulls and Derek Elston, the Hoosiers project as a top-25 team.

How has that impacted recruiting?

“The exposure level, the history of Indiana, speaks for itself,” Johnson says. “The recent national TV exposure (with Oladipo and Zeller going in the top 4 of the NBA draft), reintroducing the program on a national level has aided in recruiting. People can see what’s going on. They hear about our separating factors – our development, our strength and conditioning, our education. People are interesting once they get a chance to see it.”

What they see is a championship tradition that stretches from the mid-1920s. There are five national championships and 21 Big Ten titles.

“Our guys are focused on the tradition of the program, the success and history of the program,” Johnson says.

He mentions that freshmen Colin Hartman, Devin Davis and Luke Fischer committed “at a time when the program wasn’t at the peak it was last year. They committed to something they knew was building and growing.”

Remaining freshmen Noah Vonleh, Stanford Robinson and Troy Williams committed later, after IU had made one Sweet 16 and topped preseason rankings.

“They were committed to a program where they knew they could continue a program that had been built for the previous five years,” Johnson says. “They wanted the pressure of being part of a national championship team. They wanted to be part of a winning program. They came to a place with a rich tradition, a history, and saw an opportunity to add to that.”

And yet, there are challenges. The recruiting competition is fierce. The teenage brain is fickle.

Team success doesn’t guarantee recruiting perfection, even in your home state. In recent years some of the state’s best high school players have gone to Ohio State (DeShaun Thomas), Michigan State (Gary Harris), Michigan (Glenn Robinson, Mitch McGary and Zak Irvin) and Kentucky (Marquis Teague).

In the Class of 2014, Indianapolis’ Trey Lyles de-committed and will choose between Kentucky and Louisville. Another 2014 de-commit, former Bishop Luers’ guard James Blackmon, is reportedly favoring Kentucky, although IU is still in the running.

Some grumble about Crean. Others see the dark side of recruiting at work. Still others spew because that’s what they do.

In truth, in-state players going elsewhere reflects the quality of high school basketball here, how hard out-of-state powers recruit Indiana as well as in-state players not necessarily dreaming of wearing Cream ‘n Crimson. The days of Indiana under Bob Knight getting his pick of in-state talent are long gone. Loyalty to an in-state team gives way to teenage whim on the best way to NBA riches.

Crean adjusted 18 months ago by hiring Johnson, whose East Coast connections have paid off with freshmen Noah Vonleh (Massachusetts), Stanford Robinson (Maryland) and Troy Williams (Virginia). Another Virginia player, guard Robert Johnson, has just committed as part of the Class of 2014. Johnson is rated No. 42 nationally. The Hoosiers have a good shot to get Virginia forward Devin Robinson and Massachusetts’ center Goodluck Okonoboh for 2014, both top-32 pospects.

That doesn’t mean IU has given up on the state. Crean has offered Indianapolis guard Eron Gordon, the younger brother of former Hoosier Eric and current Hoosier Evan. Eron Gordon is set to attend next Friday’s Hoosier Hysteria along with such in-state prospects as Kyle Guy, D.J. Wilkins, CJ Hedgepeth, Joey Brunk, Kris Wilkes, Malik Williams and more.

The bottom line is getting good players. The current six freshmen rank in the top 10 nationally, with the No. 8 Vonleh projecting as an instant-impact dominator. So did the previous class with Yogi Ferrell and Hanner Perea. So did the class before that with Zeller, a two-time All-America.

If Okonoboh and Robinson join Johnson, the Class of 2014 could have a similar ranking.

And then the drama would start all over again.

<br> <center>Online </center> <br>

For more on Twitter follow Pete DiPrimio on Twitter at pdiprimo.

<br><i> This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Pete DiPimio at pdiprimio. </i>

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