Can it really have been as recently as last year that the men’s basketball team of little Butler University was facing off against Connecticut in the NCAA final, while Indiana’s players, after a dreadful 12–20 season, could have gone to the tournament only if they’d bought tickets?
How quickly fortunes change. IU would best Butler by 16 later that year, in the most recent meeting of the two programs, and as they prepare to square off again today at Bankers Life Fieldhouse (2 p.m., CBS), the natural order of the college-basketball universe seems to have been restored: The top-ranked Hoosiers, who lead the all-time series 37-13, are a double-digit favorite going in, even playing in Butler-friendly Indianapolis.
And at least one former player, Tom Coverdale—floor leader of the last great IU team before the program’s Kelvin Sampson–fueled immolation—is pleased to see his alma mater back on track.
“I’ve only been able to go two or three games since I graduated,” says Coverdale, who, as a junior point guard, helped lead IU to an appearance in the 2002 NCAA final. “And for the first time, at the North Carolina game, the atmosphere reminded me of when we were playing a big game there.”
But it isn’t just the noise at Assembly Hall that reminds Coverdale of his national-runner-up squad. And this team, he says, is even better.
“Our team had the will to win that this year’s team has,” he says. “But this team is a lot more talented and athletic, and this is probably the deepest Indiana team I’ve seen, since as far back as I can remember, even as a kid.” (That would include the great Calbert Cheaney–led Final Four team of 1992.)
Position by position, some of the similarities between 2002 and 2012 are noteworthy indeed. If you haven’t noticed that scrappy, dead-eye senior guard Jordan Hulls plays a lot like another physically outmatched but tough-as-nails guard from a decade ago, you haven’t been watching long enough to remember Coverdale. And that’s a shame, because by the end of Coverdale’s college career, he had quietly become a Hoosier great.
Just look at the numbers: 1,217 points, 32nd on the all-time list (ahead of the likes of Isiah Thomas and Jared Jeffries); 200 three-point field goals, second all-time; and 500 assists, third all-time. Coverdale also logged 137 steals, sixth all-time—not flashy but remarkable, considering that Coverdale was getting most of them with smarts and determination rather than quickness. “My high school coach, Dave McCollough, who I’m still close with, always asks me, ‘How did you get that high up in steals being that slow?’” says the Noblesville native.
Hulls needs to score 140 more points to catch Coverdale on the all-time scoring list, which averages out to just over 6 per game for the rest of the regular season; his current average is nearly 12.
Coverdale is quick to praise Hulls. “The thing I think I’ve been most impressed with is how Hulls is just a leader in general, and makes everyone else around him so much better,” he says. “If you’ve watched Jordan play, you can’t help but root for him, just because of all the effort he puts in.”
And the similarities to a younger Tom Coverdale?
“I felt like when I played—just like when you watch Jordan—it’s almost like we have to do everything right, because we’re not as athletic as everybody we play against,” he says. “But he does all the little things, and you can tell he works harder than everybody else.”
And height-wise, Hulls, at 6 feet, doesn’t even measure up to the undersized, 6-2 Coverdale. “I felt like I was the smallest guy on the court,” says the former IU standout. “I’m sure he feels the same way.”
Coverdale sees team comparisons in the frontcourt as well: “You have your best player, which for us was Jared Jeffries, and for them is Cody Zeller, who leads by example with his effort. I think that’s very import in a championship team. It rubs off on everyone. I remember one recent play in particular—IU was up like 20 or 25 points, with 8 minutes to go, and Zeller was still laying out for a loose ball.”
Okay, so maybe fans shouldn’t let all the excitement go to their heads before an early-season matchup with an instate rival. But Coverdale is.
“Obviously, being ranked number one, the hype’s even more now then when I played,” says Coverdale, who works for an insurance company in Carmel. “And deservedly so with these guys. You can definitely see that they have all the pieces you need to be really successful, make a deep run, and win a championship.”