BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — This is part of a “Road to the Final Four” Sunday series looking at the nation’s hotbeds of college basketball.It’s mid-November and basketball is the topic of conversation at a longtime sports bar in town. Nobody wants to talk about the Indiana football team, which was just mollywhopped 51-3 at Wisconsin. Or even a brighter storyline such as the nearby Indianapolis Colts contending for the AFC South title.No, college basketball season is under way and Indiana just beat Stony Brook. Even though it’s a largely irrelevant nonconference game, patrons at Nick’s English Hut discuss the game, wonder what freshman sensation Noah Vonleh can become and what’s in store for the upcoming season.Basketball is to Hoosiers as football is to Texans. Bloomington native Angelo Pizzo captured that passion in his film, Hoosiers, which tells the story of a small-town high school team winning the Indiana state championship in the 1950s.“It’s a sport that was planted here very early at the turn of the [20th] century, and it just took off,” Pizzo, a screenwriter and producer, said. “Indiana is made up of a lot of farming communities, and in the early 20th century, basketball was a way of creating community identity, a way of rallying people who live on large farms and bringing them into the city. Most of these towns were too small to field football or baseball teams, and it was harder to compete in those sports. In basketball, if you have one or two good players, you can compete against anybody.“It was amazing when we were looking for gyms to film Hoosiers. You’d find them everywhere, even some in churches or barns. They were a very hard-working people, and basketball was a great release and outlet for the farmers to come in and rally around their team.”That passion and love for the game at the community level multiplied when it came to the state’s university. The Hoosiers faithful are among the most fanatical about the game as there is in the country and it’s been that way going on 113 years.Indiana is home to several colleges with strong basketball traditions such as Butler, which plays in famed Hinkle Fieldhouse — used in the filming of Hoosiers — and which made consecutive runs to the national championship game in 2010 and 2011, and Purdue, which has been to two Final Fours.But Indiana, the state’s school, has the most storied tradition with five national championships, including the last perfect season in 1975-76, eight Final Fours and 37 NCAA Tournament appearances.As Pizzo said: “A state university means something to everybody in the state. It’s why the University of Texas is the biggest school in Texas. It’s just the name and a way of identifying yourself with a larger group. People love to say, ‘I’m a Hoosier.’ ‘I’m a Longhorn.’ ‘I’m a Buckeye.’ ‘I’m a Jayhawk.’ ”Being a HoosierCount Indiana fans among those who are opposed to change. They like their candy-striped warm-up pants to this day even if they’re outdated, their old-school logos and their jerseys without names on the back.And they definitely revere Assembly Hall, the 42-year-old building widely considered one of the top venues in college basketball. Talk of building a new arena a few years ago never gained steam and, instead, the school is now funding a $40 million renovation project on Assembly Hall to be completed by 2016.It’s part of a $150 million capital-improvements campaign for the school, and the longtime basketball venue will be renamed “Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall” after alumna Cindy Simon Skjodt.Simon Skjodt donated $40 million toward the capital campaign, the largest gift given to the athletics department, although the name change won’t sit well with some purists within the fan base.As Ken Bikoff, the editor-in-chief of Inside Indiana Magazine said, “The fans are very touchy about touching anything about the program. But that’s part of what makes it special because the fans really embrace the history of it all.”Special atmosphereEven with a slightly changed name, Assembly Hall will still be known for its loudness, for its unique character with a steep seating bowl and overbearing balconies and its old-school logo at midcourt. The student section will remain rowdy as usual and continue to wave more fathead posters than one can count when an opposing player is at the free-throw line.That type of home-court advantage is a key selling point to attract the top players in the country.“It’s not just five-on-five there … it’s 20,000 plus five-on-five,” said A.J. Moye, who played at IU from 2000-04. “People just love their Hoosiers. They’d chant my name and I loved it. Of all the places I’ve played, I’ve loved the fans. But I really do miss those fans at Indiana. Those people truly love the game like I love the game.”Pat Knight, the son of legendary coach Bob Knight who played for his dad at IU from 1991-95, fondly remembers Assembly Hall and the seats being filled every night. At most schools, Knight said, season-ticket holders might own the tickets but fail to show up on game day. That doesn’t happen at Indiana.“They always show up or they give them to somebody else to use, and then the student section is one of the best in the nation by far,” said Knight, now coaching at Lamar University in Beaumont. “It might not be the prettiest-looking architectural design, but it’s got to be one of the five best venues to see a game.”It’s a rocking venue even when the team is struggling. Back in 2009, when the team was among the worst in school history, the university offered $5 balcony tickets to help prevent attendance from dipping too much.And fans who typically couldn’t afford seats showed up in throngs.“It was marvelous to see full houses for just a terrible team,” said Bob Hammel, the longtime sports editor at the Bloomington Herald-Times. “All these people who were never able to go to a game at Assembly Hall were now given that chance, and they were yelling and eager to be there. That just showed how much basketball meant to people in Indiana.”Assembly Hall remains a shrine for Hoosiers throughout the state. If offered, nobody turns down a ticket to a game.“This is one of the main attractions and it’s been home to a lot of great games,” said Gary Rainbolt, a 39-year-old fan from Bedford, Ind.Said Max Spaulding, a 74-year-old who has been a season-ticket holder for 15 years: “It’s just a tradition of excellence. Nothing compares to the excitement here.”Knight’s reignBob Knight is the first name that came to Jay Bilas’ mind when asked about Indiana. The respected college basketball analyst isn’t alone in that thinking, either.Indiana has a rich history, of course, beginning with the school’s first coach, J.H. Horne, in 1900-01. There were more than a dozen coaches before Everett Dean held the job for 14 years from 1924-25 until 1938-39.One of Dean’s former players, Branch McCracken, took over and became the school’s first iconic coach. He won two national championships in 23 years, and the Assembly Hall court bears his name.But Knight has become synonymous with Indiana basketball. He replaced McCracken’s successor, Lou Watson, in 1971.Knight became a beloved figure in Bloomington, known for his fiery temper on the bench, infamously throwing a chair during a game in 1985, and memorable postgame interviews in which he might berate NCAA officials or media members.But Knight could get away with it because of the success he had on the court. He is one of the all-time great coaches, who led Indiana to three national championships, including the perfect season in 1975-76.He coached some of the all-time great players in school history, too, from Scott May to Isiah Thomas to Steve Alford to Calbert Cheaney. Knight piled up 662 wins in 29 seasons, going to 24 NCAA Tournaments and winning 11 Big Ten titles.Knight’s tenure came to an unceremonious end in 2000 when he was fired by university president Myles Brand. Knight was under a “zero tolerance” policy and broke it when he was accused of scolding and grabbing the arm of a 19-year-old freshman student, Kent Harvey, who had greeted him by saying, “Hey, Knight, what’s up?”The firing still doesn’t seem to sit well with Knight, who has yet to return to Assembly Hall for what would surely be a hero’s welcome. Knight is cheered loudly every time his face is shown in the pregame video, although there are some fans who aren’t as high on Knight as others.“This is not Bob Knight University. This is Indiana University,” said Spaulding, the 74-year-old fan and alum. “I respect what he did here and he helped build a tradition here and I hope he comes back. But this university isn’t about only one person.”Hard feelingsKnight could not be reached to discuss his Indiana days, but told The New York Times last year: “What do I need a hero’s welcome for? Obviously I don’t have any interest in going back, or I would have, it’s that simple.” Pat Knight reflected back on his dad’s time there. Pat was on a Final Four team in the 1991-92 season, and was then an assistant under him for what proved to be his final season in 1999-2000.“It’s not taboo; he talks about all the teams, all the players,” Pat said. “Boy, you can get him going. You can get him on a roll about the IU teams, the West Point teams. His memory is incredible, who started, who scored, who jumped center. Does he talk about getting fired? Nah. But he loves talking about the good things. Even though it ended in a bad way, it doesn’t affect how he feels about his ex-players or what he accomplished.”Pat, like most of Bob Knight’s former players, is in favor of him returning to the university at some point, but doesn’t know if it will happen. For now, Pat said, his dad is happily retired in Lubbock, going hunting and fishing and occasionally stopping by Pat’s practices at Lamar.Asked whether he thought his dad would change his mind at some point, Pat said: “I don’t know. It’s a funny deal. It’s not something he needs.”Well, at least Bob Knight left the program in good shape. One of his assistants, Mike Davis, took over and had the Hoosiers in the national championship game two years later.Most of those players were recruited by Bob Knight. Pat admitted it was bittersweet to watch the players they recruited, but didn’t have the opportunity to coach, reach that level of success.“My dad caught some grief because he never called any of the kids,” Pat said. “He wished them all the best, but he wasn’t going to intervene. He’s at Texas Tech, why should he be calling them? People took some cheap shots and that’s the only thing I didn’t like about the experience.”Moye, a freshman when Knight was fired, understood why Knight distanced himself from the program and has yet to return.“It just wasn’t a proper way to fire someone,” Moye said. “The whole thing that happened, it didn’t happen. It was like a witch hunt and he didn’t appreciate it. I can’t sit here and see Coach coming back. But for a program like Indiana and a coach like Bobby Knight, they belong to each other.”Hammel, who has written a book with Knight and talks to him often, also doesn’t see Knight returning to the school but wouldn’t rule it out.“You never know with him,” Hammel said.Moving onFollowing in the footsteps of Knight, especially with the messy split, wasn’t going to be an easy job for anyone. Davis had initial success but missed consecutive NCAA Tournaments in 2004 and 2005 and resigned after the 2006 season.Things got worse in Bloomington under Kelvin Sampson, who didn’t last three full seasons because of NCAA violations and left the program in ruins and slapped with NCAA sanctions.Tom Crean inherited the wrecked program, and his first team had the school’s worst season, 6-25, in 2008-09. “Those were the very darkest years,” Hammel said. “They were awful. Just awful. There were better high school teams.”But Crean has built the program back up.The Hoosiers landed five-star recruit and Indiana native Cody Zeller before the 2011-12 season and made a run to the Sweet 16 in his freshman year.Last season, Indiana fully re-established itself. The Hoosiers were the top-ranked team at one point and went into the NCAA Tournament as a No. 1 seed. However, the season ended before most expected when the Hoosiers were knocked out by Syracuse in the Sweet 16.This year, the Hoosiers appear to be on the outside looking in to make the tournament for a third consecutive season. Sophomore guard Yogi Ferrell is the leading scorer and star of the team, and freshman forward Vonleh is an NBA-caliber talent.But the team has gone through its ups and downs. Indiana had an impressive win over then-No. 3 Wisconsin on Jan. 14, but has since lost six of the next eight, including a loss at rival Purdue on Saturday. They sit at 14-11 with six games left and will need to essentially win out the rest of the regular season or win the Big Ten tournament to get in the Big Dance.But, regardless of how the season finishes, it’s been a refreshing time for the Hoosier faithful who go through the same highs and lows as the basketball program. And the college basketball world is better off when Indiana is relevant.“It’s like any other sport … when Tiger Woods is good, it’s good for golf. When the Yankees are good, it’s good for baseball,” Bilas said. “So it’s always good when a traditional power like Indiana is good in college basketball.” Next week: A look at Kansas’ Allen Fieldhouse.
Drew Davison, 817-390-7760 Twitter: @drewdavison