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RTF Fan Series: Indiana

Next up in our Run the Floor fan series is Nicole Slivensky from Indiana University. Her bio on Twitter pretty much sums things up: "Crimson functions as a neutral in my wardrobe. HOOSIERS, Cubs, Blackhawks, college basketball." She, like Shawn Cunningham who we profiled last week, is a diehard hoops fan, which makes her alright in my book.

I asked her for a brief bio and this is how she describes herself: "I graduated from Indiana University in 2010 with degrees in history, political science, and Spanish (read: unemployment). Currently I live in Chicago but hope to migrate south for the winter. In addition to college basketball, I love Seinfeld, red wine, and being taught how to Dougie."

RTF: What is your favorite memory regarding Indiana hoops?

NS: My favorite memory regarding Indiana basketball is when College Gameday came to Bloomington on February 16, 2008. I mention the date because it was days after the NCAA announced Kelvin Sampson's recruiting violations, and less than a week before he resigned. It had been a very tough couple of days for Hoosier fans. The same day the Indiana Daily Student broke the story about Sampson's violations, we lost at home to Wisconsin on a buzzer-beater from Brian Butch. Campus was already subdued that day, with the uncertainty and anxiety surrounding Sampson, but Assembly Hall sat in stunned silence when that stupid ball banked in. I don't think my friends and I said one word to each other as we left the game.

No one knew what to think. I think people were still conflicted when ESPN got to town on Saturday. We were ecstatic at the prospect of being featured, but why did it have to be then? Why couldn't it have been one week earlier, before everything had turned to crap? Regardless, my friends and I were giddy with excitement the night before. We stayed up late making signs (they were super cute, obviously!) and got up at the crack of dawn to get a good spot in line. We got to Assembly Hall at 6am, and we were among the first people there. It was so exciting being around other early bird, die-hard fans and discussing the situation with them. Students trickled toward Assembly Hall little by little until the line snaked all the way across and around the parking lot. People's signs reflected the array of reactions to the past week. Some defended Sampson, with signs like "Kelvin can call me any time" and "At least we didn't take steroids" (a nod to the congressional hearings on steroid use in the MLB that were also going on at the time), while others berated him; one of our signs read "We need a/COACH/KNIGHT/needs a job", referencing Coach Knight's very recent resignation from Texas Tech. Either way, people made light of the situation. For that time, our angst was replaced with joviality.

When they finally opened the doors, it was a mad dash for the stands. We got seats in the second row, just off center; we were on TV for practically the entire broadcast. The crowd was huge and barely needed prodding to chant and cheer. It is an awesome experience for any college basketball fan. Even the fact that the analysts talked almost exclusively about Kelvin Sampson could not crush our spirit. Whenever they brought it up, we simply tried to drown them out with boos and chants of "talk about the game".

My friends and I rushed home to watch ourselves on TV and frantically called our parents, telling them to set their DVRs. Seeing ourselves on TV was obviously the coolest thing ever to us, and our excitement built throughout the day. We debated how the crowd would greet Sampson and whether the team would rally or fold against Michigan State. Assembly Hall filled up earlier than usual that night. I think others were curious about Kelvin Sampson's reception, and people wanted to catch the pregame broadcast as well. We were rowdy that night. We booed Michigan State and screamed for our players louder than ever during introductions. When Sampson was introduced, the crowd went oddly quiet. There were some boos and some cheers, but I think most people were not sure how to react.

My memory of the game itself is skewed. I think we dominated from the start, but at no point did it feel that way. I remember feeling like we were struggling underdogs the entire time. We were, in a way, being ranked slightly lower than Michigan State and with the preoccupation about Sampson. But that game stands out to me. To me, I feel like it comes just behind Kentucky in 2011 and Duke in 2005 in terms of atmosphere. There was a point, I think in the second half, when Armon Basset made a great play or maybe had a call go his way right before a time out. The crowd went absolutely nuts. Even the team jumped off the bench to meet him on the floor. Sampson rushed toward Armon, who jumped into his arms, and they met in an emotional embrace. The crowd felt the intensity too, cheering even louder than before. My screams were muffled as choked back tears. I don't think I was the only one who was overwhelmed with conflicting feelings at that moment. I was angry at Sampson, sad for the players, and worried for our program. We felt betrayed by Sampson, but we also felt victimized by the media. As the game went on, we just wanted to win. We wanted our team to win, we wanted to prove everyone wrong, and we wanted to show support for our coach. "Kel-vin Samp-son" chants rang out and continued for the remainder of the game. I don't think it was pure support for Kelvin Sampson. It was partly a middle finger to everyone criticizing us, and also kind of a good-bye to our coach. We knew his time was done. We knew this could be his last game. We went on to win, of course. The "Kelvin Sampson" chants lasted long after the final buzzer, I believe even replacing the usual cheers and clapping that follow a win.

I went to a party that night still wearing my candy stripe pants. It was a great night, and I enjoyed it while I could. I knew the days, months, and apparently years that followed would not be pretty for Indiana basketball. But for that night, I celebrated.

The elation that followed the win, the experience of College Game day, and being on TV made that day one of my best memories in all of college. However, the unique, intense emotions that surrounded it are what made it unforgettable.

RTF: What about after that game? Sampson stepped down less than a week later and Dan Dakich took over. There were player mutinies, suspensions, losses, etc… – how were the fans in the six weeks between Sampson stepping down and Crean being hired?

NS: Fans were…not good. Maybe it was just me, but it felt like there was a cloud hanging over campus. A palpable, somber cloud. A less intense version of how I imagine State College was this past year. I think there was initial hope in the possibility that the team could have a strong finish to the season. Maybe they would rally like they had against Michigan State. However, that optimism was short-lived. It seemed like things went from bad to worse on a daily basis. Every day it was something different. More bad news. Every story I read on our Basketblog, which I checked obsessively, was invariably negative. Our team was falling apart right in front of us. Fans liked Dan Dakich. We supported him and felt bad about the hand he was dealt, but we grew frustrated as he floundered amidst the chaos. The team's performance slipped. So did our ranking. Fans and even players gave up, wrote the season off. It was a damn shame. We had our best team in years, and it all went down the drain because of one man. We had been expected to make a run in the Tournament, but by the time March came, no one was surprised when we lost in the first round.

The best way I can think to describe the agitated despondency is by comparing it to being a Cubs fan this season. How has this season been? How was that time for IU basketball fans? I don't know, it sucked? I cannot remember the exact timeline or every miserable detail, because after a while it doesn't matter any more. Just add another embarrassment to the pile. Stand back, shake your head, and watch the dumpster fire. (Of course, as Cubs fans, we are used to this; it is not nearly as painful as the IU mess.)

I guess it is amusing now to look back on how upset my friends and I were. We were legitimately depressed. Like, spontaneous bouts of sobbing depressed. I don't think my dad realized how big a sports fan I had become until then. He was absolutely bewildered when I began calling him on a semi-regular basis in tears about how DJ White deserved better than this, how Sampson had been so selfish, how unfair this all was to the team, etc, etc. A tad melodramatic perhaps, but what can I say? I take basketball personally.

RTF: The Hoosiers are going to be in everyone's preseason top-5. How many of their games do you think you'll watch this year? Do you watch at home? Do you watch in bars? Do you have a private jet and a luxury box at Assembly Hall?

NS: How many games will I watch this year?? What kind of fan do you think I am?! Of course I will watch all of them! When I was in school I obviously went to every home game. I still try to get to one or two games a year. My preference usually depends on the game, but otherwise, I don't really have a regular watching routine now. My favorite thing is probably going to a bar with friends or family. My little sister went to Purdue, and my brother is a freshman at Nebraska, so watching Big Ten sports is big in my family. I don't mind watching at home alone either though, because keeping up with games on Twitter is fun too.

RTF: Your sister went to Purdue? How does that work out? I can't imagine you NOT having genuine disdain for the Boilermakers. Do you ever have to defend Purdue athletics because of your family?

NS: Yeah it is pretty awful. I never knew what it really meant to hate Purdue until my sister, Blair, went there. I would never defend Purdue athletics simply because of my family. If I do ever support Purdue, which is exceedingly rare, it is only because of the mutual respect that comes from a true rivalry.  Many IU fans, for example, were happy for Robbie Hummel when he got drafted. But if anything, my sister being a Boilermaker makes even such minor concessions nearly impossible.

The intensity of our personal rivalry varies. We each have our favorite bars and restaurants on the other's campus. I like to give my sister Purdue-centric Christmas and birthday gifts, and she generally reciprocates the gesture. Our parents frequently receive "House Divided" gear from us, and we are proud of that fun little distinction. That is about where the cordiality ends though.

I probably give her a harder time than she gives me (I assume this is because she knows her school is inferior). I make sure to keep her updated whenever IU does something awesome or a Purdue athlete gets arrested. We tend to avoid direct confrontation, but we constantly call each other out on Facebook or Twitter. It can be merciless. When Indiana and Purdue meet, it is usually too tense for us to watch together; our parents are divorced, so we often split up and go to different houses for the game. Neither of us cares about football, but we absolutely cannot watch a Bucket game together. We talk a lot of trash before games, but we have sort of an unspoken agreement to keep gloating to a minimum afterward. Although I bought a 2011 VCU Sweet 16 shirt and wore it proudly around our house, I never said one word to Blair about Purdue losing to the Rams.

RTF: Are you buying into the hype? If Indiana wins the Big Ten and then advances to the Elite 8, is that a successful season? And what about Tom Crean – his first three Indiana teams were horrible, and then they burst back into the upper echelon last year. Is he the guy? Is Indiana back to being Indiana?

NS: Yes and no. I have absolutely, 100% bought into the hype about Indiana basketball. There is no doubt we are back, and Tom Crean is definitely the guy for the job. In my opinion, he has been a great fit for Indiana since day one. Maybe even before day one.I heard a story about some kids who waited to greet him at his hotel the first night he arrived in Bloomington, the night before the press conference, maybe even before the school officially announced his hiring. He didn't brush past them and hurry inside; he was excited to see them and interact with them. The first thing he said was he had never heard our fight song, and he asked them to sing it. He has shown that his enthusiasm for Indiana basketball and the IU community is genuine. He never shies away from greeting fans around Bloomington, and he declined to speak to media when he joined in the searches for Lauren Spierer. Little things like that mean a lot. He has been humble and seems to actively reinforce the idea that our basketball program is bigger than one person. He and Fred Glass reinstated forgotten traditions like featuring Martha the Mop Lady and hanging vintage posters for games.He has made Indiana basketball feel like a family again by developing relationships with old players and making them part of the current program. He really made us believe, even through three abysmal seasons, that he could bring IU back. We still packed Assembly Hall throughout those years because of his sincerity. And this past season, it paid off. Although the team's achievements surprised us, no one was surprised that Crean had done it. We knew it would happen someday.

Aside from assimilating perfectly to the culture of IU, I am confident in his abilities as a coach as well. Of course I have my criticisms, but I have no doubt that he will succeed here. His background as an assistant under Tom Izzo at MSU is reassuring; he learned from the best. He has shown he can prevail through adversity. He has shown he can compete with the best teams and coaches in the nation, even with what was probably a deficient team. He has been to a Final Four before. I see no reason he can't to go all the way, especially with a program like IU.

Last season greatly exceeded anyone's expectations. Going into the season, I think the consensus was that we would be satisfied with an NIT appearance. As soon as I watched our first exhibition game though, I immediately altered my prediction. I underestimated how talented Cody Zeller was, and the entire team played differently around him.

That being said, I'm afraid last year may have set the bar too high for this season. If you had asked me a year ago if an Elite Eight appearance would be a successful season, I would have laughed. OF COURSE it would be! But…after making the Sweet Sixteen last year, with a far less talented team than we have now, I think the Elite Eight would be a disappointment. At the same time, I think it might be unreasonable to expect more. Winning three games in a row in the Tournament is hard. I am afraid fans will start to grumble if we don't get off to a 12-0 start again, or if we lose to UNC in the Big Ten ACC Challenge. I am worried about the morale of the team if they run into early obstacles. That was probably my biggest concern about last season too, though. In Tom Crean's first three seasons, it felt like the team just gave up about half-way through February. After we lost to Minnesota and Nebraska last year, I was afraid they would fall into the same pattern. I was not sure they would be able to get back on track. It took a little while to recover, but I guess Crean did get them through it in time for the tournament. Maybe I shouldn't doubt their mental toughness (to throw around an overused basketball term).

So, I don't know. I'm not sold on this season. I'm a cautious, anxious, superstitious fan. I may have begged my parents to replace Christmas and birthday presents for the next two years with Final Four tickets for Atlanta, but I'm sorry — you will not get me to say that I am buying into the hype about this season. Not in writing at least!

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