Photo by Mike Schumann, The Daily Hoosier

High hopes for IU basketball in March: It just feels right

As a young boy growing up in Bloomington, IU guard Anthony Leal remembers days like today vividly.

When IU basketball was playing in the postseason, everything else kind of stopped.

That included the classrooms at the local elementary schools, when teachers would put Indiana’s Big Ten and NCAA Tournament games on the television during the day.

Basketball is on the curriculum in Indiana.

Leal’s childhood included IU’s outright Big Ten titles in 2013 and 2016.  So like many in the IU fanbase, he grew accustomed to the success.

“Growing up, it was a given that they were going to be in the tournament, so it was really just a question of how far can they go,” Leal said on Thursday afternoon in Albany.

One of the games that stands out to Leal the most came in another season when IU was on the rebound after a tough stretch.

In March of 2012, Indiana beat VCU to advance to the program’s first Sweet 16 in 10 years.

“It was a wild game we ended up winning, (Will) Sheehey hit a shot,” Leal said.

Then 10-year-old Leal had no idea at the time he’d be part of another program revival 10 years after that.

Last season, Leal’s second with IU, the Hoosiers made their first NCAA Tournament in six years.  And now this year, the ascent continues.

Having been on both sides — first as a fan and now as a player — this latest uptick in the program means as much to Leal as anyone.

“In my first year (2020-21) that wasn’t really the case (making the tournament), and last year we were in the play-in game to actually be in the tournament, and now we’re a four seed, so it’s awesome that we’ve come this far and to know that we’re six games away from doing what we want to do,” Leal said.  “It’s super special and hopefully it’s just the start of our growth.”

Of course during Leal’s three-year stint on the IU team, a coaching change took place after year one.  And Indiana has gone from just 12 wins his first season, to 21 a year ago and already 22 this season.

There’s a buzz in the Bloomington elementary schools once again.  If you’re in the tournament you have a chance.  It only takes one six-game winning streak.

The kids can dream.

This time Leal is on the inside, living the dream, and he sees a transformation since Indiana hired Mike Woodson.

“It’s just a completely different culture (since IU hired Woodson),” Leal said.  “He came in preaching family, Big Ten title and national title.  I think that’s the biggest thing is just the family culture, and everyone buying in, and having the players who can help lead us to where we want to go.”

A more national recruiting approach, the transfer portal, and a tighter rotation has also been part of the story with Woodson.  And that’s meant less minutes each season for Leal.

He played 232 minutes his freshman year, 175 in 2021-22, and just 22 this season.

But he’s still savoring this experience.

Especially when things are going well, and everyone back home is watching.

For a Bloomington product — and a fan — this all just kind of feels right.

“It’s incredible,” Leal said.  “I wake up and feel glad every day because I really am doing what I always dreamed of doing every time I put the jersey on.  So to be able to go out there and help our team in whatever way, it is just a blessing.”

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