BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Indiana coach Tom Crean was a believer in Victor Oladipo right from the start.
He saw a tough, tireless defender who attacked the basket, a kid willing to share the spotlight and the ball. When it came time to play, he could tell the 6-foot-5 guard was ready to play and his infectiously positive personality would be something a rebuilding program desperately needed.
Crean was one of the few who saw all that promise back then, and all Oladipo has done since then is reward the Hoosiers by going from overlooked high school recruit to potential NBA lottery pick with an old-school approach.
“If you’re not willing to get down and dirty, basically, and, you know, telling yourself that the man who has the ball isn’t going to score, it’s going to be real tough to play defense,” Oladipo said. “But when you’re committed to it and focused to it, it’s not that hard.”
Focus and commitment are two traits Oladipo never lacked.
So why was a player averaging a double-double at one of America’s best high school basketball factories virtually ignored by some of the nation’s top college programs?
Some coaches were wary about taking a risk on a player who wasn’t considered a good enough shooter to be ranked in the Top 100.
The list included names such as North Carolina coach Roy Williams, who acknowledged after a 24-point rout in November that Indiana “kicked our rear ends” with Cody Zeller and two kids he had never heard of when they were playing high school ball. Zeller scored 20 points that night. Oladipo and Will Sheehey each had 19. More coaches may join the chorus if they have to contend with the Hoosiers and Oladipo over the course of the NCAA tournament.
It turned out to be a perfect fit for the Hoosiers (27-6), who open tournament play Friday night in Dayton, Ohio.
“You know it’s funny because the correlation between gym time and your production on the court is pretty parallel,” said Sheehey, who was part of Indiana’s same recruiting class. “Vic brings guys in and other guys bring Vic in, so it’s mutual.”
But what makes the son of Nigerian immigrants so unique is his uncanny capacity at age 20 to understand there’s so much more to life than basketball.
In June 2009, he was one of 10 seniors from DeMatha selected to attend the Young Men’s Barbeque, a White House event to discuss the importance of good fathers. Those who attended included President Barack Obama, Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade, Super Bowl-winning coach Bill Cowher and popular skateboarder Tony Hawk.
Now Indiana is two wins away from heading back to Washington, where Oladipo could be performing in front of college basketball’s First Fan at the regionals in Washington. For the record, Obama has already picked Oladipo’s Hoosiers to win the national championship.
And when Crean gave his players a few days off to celebrate Christmas following a 36-point rout over Florida Atlantic in December, Oladipo booked the earliest flight out of town without telling his coaches why.
“To hear that he took an airport shuttle straight to the Boys and Girls Club so he could hand out turkeys at 9:30 in the morning, that’s just uncommon for someone of that age,” Crean said, shaking his head.
The Big Ten’s new defensive player of the year also happens to be on target to earn his bachelor’s degree in May, after only three years, and with a GPA higher than the 3.2 he finished with in high school. He’s done all that despite devoting so much extra time to perfecting his shooting touch between games and practices.
The results have been impressive.
In 2011-12, Oladipo averaged 10.8 points and 5.3 rebounds and helped the Hoosiers re-establish themselves on college basketball’s national map. But he shot 47.1 percent from the field and 20.8 percent from 3-point range. Oladipo is now averaging 13.6 points, 6.4 rebounds and is now shooting 59.9 percent from the field, 24th in the nation, 44.3 percent on 3-pointers and is 17th nationally in steals (74).
“He’s just a gym rat,” freshman point guard Kevin “Yogi” Ferrell said. “He’s still in the gym to this day and he definitely brought that in with him. He and Will Sheehey are both gym rats, they’re always in the gym just trying to get better. When I see them in there, I always want to get in there and I definitely want to get shots up with them, too.”
Those who have had to contend with Oladipo all season, understand he’s one of the biggest reasons Indiana (27-6) has gone from regional semifinalist last year to a No. 1 seed this year.
Illinois guard Brandon Paul says he wants to emulate Oladipo’s play on the court. Wisconsin’s Ryan Evans says Oladipo reminds him of Russell Westbrook. Others have made the seemingly sacrilegious comparison to another late-bloomer, Michael Jordan, and Oladipo’s thunderous 360-degree dunk late in the Big Ten quarterfinals against Illinois didn’t dissuade anybody from rekindling those thoughts.
Oladipo is content to let everyone else talk about his meteoric one-year rise from defensive stopper to national player of the year candidate.
“I don’t think the stat sheet tells the story with him,” Illinois coach John Groce said after that loss. “I think defensively he is terrific. He, as Brandon (Paul) said, he gets up into you, he takes things away, he reads things well. You can tell he’s really intelligent defensively. He’s as good a defender on the perimeter as we played against all year. Now you add the things he brings to the table from an offensive perspective and his rebounding and that makes him even more potent.”
The only real question now is what’s next?
Oladipo could return to school for one more season and pursue a graduate degree next year and either a first or second national championship. Or he could jump straight to the NBA, get the big payday and become one of DeMatha’s highest-drafted alums. Duke’s Danny Ferry went No. 2 in 1989, Notre Dame’s Adrian Dantley went No. 6 in 1976 and North Carolina State’s Kenny Carr went No. 6 in 1977. Right now, many projections have him going in the top five.
For now, though, Oladipo isn’t worried about any of that stuff.
He’d rather stick to his Hoosiers roots and focus on the one thing that really matters to Indiana fans -- earning the school’s sixth national championship banner.
“We have to get back to playing Indiana basketball the right way, keeping our edge, staying together,” Oladipo said. “It’s nothing like the regular season. We’ve just got to come ready to play.”