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Indiana schools get early jump on college basketball season

Indiana forward Trayce Jackson-Davis (23) reacts to a play during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against North Carolina in Bloomington, Ind., Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Mike Woodson grew up in Indiana watching the Hoosiers, Purdue and Notre Dame battle for bragging rights, television time and tournament bids.

Back then, Woodson and other Indiana prep stars were treated like royalty while coaches Bob Knight, Digger Phelps and Gene Keady introduced a new generation of players to basketball’s basic fundamentals.

The combination of a talent-rich basketball state and those revered coaches kept the three schools near the top of college basketball for decades. Now, after some ebbs and flows, a revival is taking place around the state.

Purdue climbed to No. 1 in the AP Top 25 on Monday. Two weeks ago, No. 14 Indiana cracked the top 10 for the first time in five years. The Indiana and Notre Dame women’s teams are both ranked in the top five and the Purdue women and Notre Dame men could be ranked before season’s end.

“This is home for me, so anything that goes well in the state means a great deal to me,” Woodson said. “I followed all those schools my 34 years in the NBA. That’s just what you do as a guy growing up here in the state, playing basketball. I think it’s good for the state.”

The schedule can’t get much better than this weekend.

Shortly after the Hoosiers (8-2) play at No. 8 Kansas (9-1) on Saturday, the Boilermakers (10-0) face Davidson in downtown Indianapolis. Forty-five minutes later and seven miles down the road, Butler (8-3) will try to hand No. 3 UConn its first loss of the season. On Sunday, coach Niele Ivey and the No. 5 Notre Dame women (8-1) visit No. 6 Virginia Tech and No. 4 Indiana (10-0) will again try to protect the highest ranking in school history against Morehead State.

It’s just another chapter in what’s already been a head-turning season.

Purdue swept West Virginia, No. 6 Gonzaga and No. 8 Duke on Thanksgiving weekend. Indiana’s teams each routed ranked North Carolina foes on back-to-back nights in front of racuous crowds.

“You could hear them,” Indiana’s women’s coach Teri Moren said, referring to the nearly 6,000 fans in attendance. “This is a hard place to play when you feel this place, from the energy to the noise.”.

The Notre Dame men jumped in with an upset of then-No. 20 Michigan State and then the Notre Dame women topped perennial women’s power UConn, 74-60.

“It’s something I’ll never forget,” Ivey said. “To have the first sold out arena here in three years brought back memories for me from the first time we beat UConn in front of the first sellout crowd in 2001. I was on that team.”

What’s changed?

Well, all six teams are led by coaches who understand their school’s expectations and the heritage of Indiana basketball.

Woodson and Purdue women’s coach Katie Gearlds made an immediate impact after returning to their alma maters last season. The Hoosiers ended a five-year NCAA Tournament drought while the Boilermakers made their first postseason bid in four years.

Ivey replaced two-time national championship coach Muffet McGraw following the 2019-20 season and, after back-to-back subpar seasons, Notre Dame reached the Sweet 16 last spring in Ivey’s seocond season.

The three longest-tenured coaches — Moren, Mike Brey at Notre Dame and Matt Painter at Purdue — seem to be getting better with age. They’ve combined for nearly 1,400 total wins.

Brey, Notre Dame’s career victories leader, earned his first NCAA bid in five years in March. Moren has turned Indiana into a power as she closes in on becoming the school’s career wins leader.

Painter’s blueprint has kept the Boilermakers consistently strong for most of the past decade. Purdue has made seven straight NCAA tourney appearances thanks to Painter’s simple recruiting plan.

“We try to value players that are more productive than anything. You know, who does the things you need to win,” Painter said. “I think our coaches have done a really good job of getting good, tough hard-nosed, intelligent basketball players and then we’ve been able to get size. That’s the piece for us.”

Geographic ties also have helped, especially in a state rife with talented, skilled prep players.

Woodson, Gearlds, Painter and Moren all played high school and college basketball in Indiana. After graduating from Notre Dame, Ivey played for the WNBA’s Indiana Fever and later spent 12 seasons in South Bend as an assistant and before taking her current job. She shuttled routinely from Notre Dame to Purdue to watch her son and future NBA lottery pick, Jaden.

The experiences and stories resonate with recruits in a state where fans have been known to visit the state historical society in Indianapolis just to see the grainy, black-and-white footage of the 1954 high school state championship game that led to the movie “Hoosiers.”

But what really matters is winning.

The state’s rabid fans have been longing for the return of captivating, high-stakes games, heated rivalries and must-see television that dominated the Indiana landscape when Woodson and Painter were cutting their teeth as prep stars.

And now, finally, it’s back.

“I think it’s good for basketball, it’s good for viewership, and it’s definitely good for our fan base,” Woodson said. “They love that.”