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October 30, 2006

Sampson Era starts with questions at Indiana

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Rivals.com selected the top 25 storylines for the upcoming 2006-07 college basketball season and will be releasing articles daily, counting down from No. 25 to No. 1. The No. 9 storyline focuses on coach Kelvin Sampson's first season at Indiana.

Out of the 62 coaching changes in Division I this past offseason, none was bigger than Kelvin Sampson's move from Oklahoma to Indiana.

The Hoosiers landed one of the most accomplished coaches in the game when they hired Sampson on March 29. Sampson owns a 279-109 overall record (72 percent winning percentage), has taken his teams to 13 of the last 14 NCAA Tournaments and led the Sooners to a Final Four in 2002.

However, choosing Sampson didn't come without controversy. The NCAA was investigating his recruiting practices at Oklahoma months before the Hoosiers hired the 23-year head coaching veteran. Sampson and his assistants were later found guilty of making 577 illegal phone calls. The Sooners were placed on one year of probation and Sampson was placed on a one-year ban from calling prospects or doing any off-campus recruiting.

All that news has left the Hoosier faithful with a lot of questions.

Will Sampson finally lead the program back to the glory days of Bob Knight? Can he escape the long shadow that Knight cast? And, what type of affect will the recruiting restrictions have on future success?

Sampson says he's mainly focused on raising the players' spirits and adjusting their attitudes. Last season was a tumultuous one for most, filled with constant questions about their former coach Mike Davis' job security. Players were also frequently asked if they were considering transferring to other programs.

Small forward Robert Vaden was the only player to leave the program, enrolling at Alabama-Birmingham soon after Davis got the job at the Conference USA school.

"I want it to be like the Fourth of July or Christmas morning (for the players)," Sampson said. "I want them to be excited to go to the gym."

Mission accomplished so far.

"We are all excited," junior guard Earl Calloway said. "We are ecstatic about the situation. You will see us play harder than ever before."

Calloway's optimism is based on more than just Sampson's arrival. In practices, junior power forward D.J. White has looked like the player who captured the Big Ten's 2004-05 Freshman of the Year. Hobbled by foot injuries, White was limited to just five games last season.

"Now that D.J. is healthy we probably have the best big man in the country and we are ready to roll," Calloway said.

With a new coach and a healthy White, the Hoosiers look like a contender in a Big Ten that lost 16 of its top 20 scorers from a season ago. Indiana's success could hinge on finding a way to replace the perimeter scoring of Marshall Strickland and Vaden, who combined to hit 150 3-pointers and average 26.1 points a game last season.

Sampson has already landed a recruit that could help in that department, if he were eligible this season. Indianapolis shooting guard Eric Gordon, the No. 2-ranked prospect in the class of 2007, switched his commitment from Illinois to Indiana earlier this month answering many of the questions about the future of the program and Sampson's ability to recruit while dealing with the NCAA's restrictions.

Davis was heavily criticized for his inability to land the top in-state prospects. Despite his commitment to Illinois, Gordon visited the Indiana campus numerous times. On one trip he accompanied Chicago guard Derrick Rose, the No. 3 prospect in the class and a former AAU teammate. Rose has narrowed his long list of suitors down to Indiana and Memphis.

It all begs another question, a scary one for the rest of the Big Ten: What kind of success will Sampson have recruiting once he can use a phone and go see prospects outside of Bloomington?

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