Tipoff: Ohio State at Indiana, 9 p.m. Tuesday
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BLOOMINGTON -- Sometimes even tough guys cry, when they care enough, when they sweat and bleed and nothing changes.
Or so it seems.
Sometimes, when you're Jordan Hulls and the Indiana basketball losses multiplied in ways you never thought possible, when hard work brought no reward, when best effort produced brick walls nothing could knock down, you found a private place and let the tears flow.
“Losing like that took a toll,” the senior guard says.
Hulls speaks from the college basketball mountaintop. The Hoosiers aren't losing anymore. They have toyed with the nation's No. 1 ranking all season -- holding it, losing it, regaining it and now losing it again.
Gonzaga is the new national king, with a finally healthy Duke giving NCAA tourney championship favorite signs.
And then there's IU, regrouped and, at least, Big Ten champs.
Saturday's 73-60 win over Iowa gave the Hoosiers a 25-4 overall record, 13-3 in the Big Ten. With Wisconsin losing at home to Purdue and Michigan State losing at Michigan, both on Sunday, Indiana has clinched its first conference co-championship since 2002. Beating Ohio State at Assembly Hall on Tuesday night would mean its first outright title since 1993, and put it in position for a No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
That this will also be Hulls' final home game makes it all the more special.
“To see the success they're having -- the kid is living his dream,” says JC Hulls, Jordan's father. “That's really cool. To see they have a shot at the Final Four, it's surreal.”
This seemed unlikely a couple of years ago. Then the Hoosiers were a sanction-ravaged program that had collapsed into patsy status (seasons of 6-25, 10-21, 12-20 as coach Tom Crean rebuilt from the Kelvin Sampson mess). That ate at the ultra-competitive Hulls like acid. He was an Indiana Mr. Basketball with an unbeaten state championship at Bloomington South High School as senior vindication for all the doubters.
And doubters were everywhere Hulls looked except around his family.
“We'd hear that he was a 6-foot white kid who would never make it,” JC says. “He used that as motivation.”
Critics said Hulls was too slow, too short, and too unskilled for elite college competition. That fueled his fire, and that of his parents.
“They'd see a 6-foot white kid,” says his mother, Joni. “They don't know what all goes on behind it.”
Hulls was determined to prove the critics wrong. He would show his worth, and it started by doing what few other players do.
“The work he has to do is a hundred fold what a 6-9 kid has to do to get at this level,” JC says. “He knows what has to be done and he does it.”
Adds Jordan: “I wasn't recruited by anybody right away. That's the way it was. I was this short little kid running around and shooting threes. It was difficult at first. I kept on working and, eventually, got where I am now.”
Does Hulls have limitations? Of course, he does. He's listed at 6-foot and 182 pounds. He's not as physically gifted as teammate Victor Oladipo. He struggles to keep Big Ten guards out of the lane, which given the quality of Big Ten guards is not a sin, although it sometimes is a defensive liability.
But Hulls can shoot. Boy, can he shoot. He ranks among the nation's best in three-point shooting (48.6 percent). He can score (10.7 points a game), handle the ball, make good decisions and lead where others fall short.
His leadership has helped produced a number of memorable moments in a four-year career in which he's started 114 of 128 games. What ranks as his favorite? Hulls passes on last season's dramatic Kentucky victory and points to the 86-75 win at North Carolina State, an eventual NCAA tourney participant. It proved Indiana, once a road doormat, was capable of beating elite teams away from Assembly Hall.
“That was a huge moment for the team,” Hulls says. “That got us going.”
The Hoosiers are still going.
So is Hulls.
Senior forward Christian Watford remembers the first time he faced Hulls' take-no-break intensity. It was the summer before their freshman year and Hulls was unlike anyone he'd ever met.
“He was this gym rat,” Watford says. “Guys would be tired from all the team workouts and pickup games we were doing. He'd go back for more. I'd be like, 'Jordan, ain't you tired? What's up with this?'”
They soon found out.
Hulls followed a workout devised by his father. He would go through shooting drills in which only made baskets counted.
“He'd be there until he made 200, 300, 400, whatever the number was,” JC says. “It created a whole different focus. You had to go hard.”
Hulls took advantage of Cook Hall's 24/7 opportunities. Teammates noticed. Eventually, for guys such as Watford, Oladipo and Will Sheehey, they followed.
“That's just Jordan,” Watford says. “He's got a motor. He can go forever. He impacted me. Seeing him get all those extra shots up made me want to shoot extra. It made me want to shoot as well as him. That's the competitive edge we've had.”
That edge never rests. After going 0-for-10 from the field at Iowa in late December, and then going 0-for-7 against the Hawkeyes on Saturday, JC had no doubt how his son responded.
“He never told me, but we knew. He went to the gym.”
Hulls' competitiveness comes from his parents. Both were standout high school and college athletes. Joni was an all-state basketball player at Bloomington North who played a couple of years at Vincennes University. JC was all-state in three sports (football, basketball and baseball) at Bloomington North. He played basketball at Wittenburg College in Ohio, and then at Vincennes University.
Both parents helped develop their son. The result is a player who has scored 1,280 career points and totaled 350 assists. His 58 straight free throws are a school record and Big Ten record, and the 10th longest streak in NCAA history. He has scored as many as 28 points, grabbed as many as nine rebounds and dished out as many as nine assists.
Beyond that, he's an academic All-American well on his way to completing his master's degree. He's a serious guy who, his mother says, has benefited from teammate and roommate Derrick Elston's carefree approach.
“It was like, let's not sweat the small stuff, let's have some fun,” Joni says.
“I see Jordan as not quite as serious. Before he was like, I can't get a B. I have to get an A. That's not always realistic. I think he's having a lot of fun now. He's serious, but still having fun.”
Leave Indiana? Are you nuts? No way would Hulls have done that. He was born and raised a Hoosier (his grandfather, John Hulls, was an assistant coach under Bob Knight at IU in the early 1970s). He was living a dream and if that dream began with a losing edge (IU was 22-41 in his first two seasons), well, nothing worthwhile comes easily. Isn't that what they say?
“I never thought of leaving,” he says. “It was difficult and challenging and I didn't know what to do. I had faith in what Coach Crean and his staff were doing. That we'd get the right guys in, guys who would work their tails off. The culture is a lot different now.
“We've all come a long way. We learned a lot about ourselves and what we're capable of doing. As bad as those years were, I don't think I'd take them back. It was hard, but we're reaping the benefits now.”
Hulls did not appear on elite recruiting lists until the spring of his junior year, when some monster AAU performances for Indiana Elite created a buzz. Purdue offered a scholarship. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski wanted him to visit. Tom Crean, newly hired at Indiana in the spring of 2008, made a big push.
“Everyone thought he would go to IU,” JC says, “but that was not one of his choices until Coach Crean got here. We had stopped talking about it.”
Then came a late-night Assembly Hall offer. Hulls accepted. Did it produce a fairy tale run? Not at first. Losing produced grumbling, at least on fan message boards, and criticism came hot and fast that even with this season's No. 1 ranking hasn't totally disappeared.
“The amazing part about high level athletics is that it's such a what-have-you-done-lately world,” JC says. “It's brutal, but that's the world these kids live in.
“It's like what John Wooden used to say: press clippings -- good or bad -- are only poison if you believe them.”
As for what to believe, JC texts his son a familiar message:
“When you leave the floor, have no regrets. You won't always have the best game, but make sure you gave the best effort you could.”
Hulls faces his Assembly Hall finale with sadness. Are you ever really ready to say goodbye to what will always be one of the best periods of your life?
“To play in front of 17,000 people is pretty cool,” he says. “I'm going to miss that. I'll miss wearing the candy striped pants. I've seen it my whole life. It will be crazy not to do it any more. The college game, there's nothing else like it. It'll be pretty sad.”
His senior speech will likely reflect that.
“I don't know if I'll make it through it. I'll be pretty emotional.”
As far as turning back the clock and doing it all over again, he says, “I don't know about wishing to start over, but I don't want to leave college yet.”
Hulls will have to, of course, at least from an athletic standpoint. At best, he'll make it to April 8 if Indiana reaches the national championship game. At worst …. well … why worry about that?
Beyond this season Hulls hopes basketball remains a big part of his life, if not as a player then a coach, like his father.
“Hopefully I'll do something with basketball. I'm excited for the next chapter of my life. We'll see what happens after the season. I'll keep working and see what good can come from it.”