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A complicated legacy

CRAWFORD | On hype, legacy and the Indiana basketball experience of Romeo Langford

  • 4 min to read

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- What could Romeo Langford have done to live up to the mountain of hype surrounding his signing with Indiana University?

Taken the team to the Final Four? Won Big Ten Player of the Year? Negotiated Bob Knight's return to Assembly Hall?

There are few better examples in recent college basketball of a player's pre-career hype overshadowing his on-court performance, even if his performance was respectable. Langford averaged 16.5 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game. That's a pretty darn good freshman year.

The problem is that nowhere among the expectations for the home-state phenom were the words "respectable" or "pretty darn good."

On Monday, Langford announced officially that he will remain in the NBA Draft, a decision that has been a foregone conclusion since that day at New Albany High School when he signed with the Hoosiers.

It was the one foregone conclusion about Langford that wound up panning out, it seems.

When your autograph lines stretch around the corner after your high school games, what can you do in college for an encore?

Part of Langford's problem was that he was on a roster that needed him to be a go-to guy in many situations -- and it often needed to go to him for outside shooting. That's a difficult spot as a marked freshman in the Big Ten Conference. Part of his problem was that he played his way through a thumb injury that hampered him into 27 percent shooting from three-point range. And part of it was that he's not the kind of player who wears his emotions on his sleeve.

That stoic demeanor can leave people with the impression that you aren't playing hard when, at times, your production would suggest otherwise.

Still, Langford on the court reminded me at times of another young Hoosier phenom I covered, one who arrived in Bloomington with a little less hype – but a good bit more delivery.

Calbert Cheaney arrived at IU out of Evansville Harrison High School to considerably fewer expectations. An injury in his senior year made him just a face in the crowd in Indiana's top-ranked recruiting class. Still, he scored 20 points in his first Indiana game, a first for any Hoosier freshman. But early in his career, Cheaney also had a tendency to want to watch the game instead of moving off the ball to get in position to receive it. His coach, Bob Knight, broke that habit, with relentless, shall we say, correction.

Even so, Cheaney scored 17.1 points per game and shot 49 percent from three-point range for an IU team that would claw its way to an 18-11 record (8-10 in the Big Ten). There were no instant jumps to the NBA then. With Knight's particular brand of urging, he became a consummate offensive player, his movement without the ball constant. He would be an All-American in his final three seasons and remains the Big Ten's all-time leading scorer. He won the Wooden Award as a senior.

Times have changed. If Langford had a sophomore, junior and senior season in Bloomington, who knows what his IU legacy might wind up being, what kind of roster could be built around him, how he might rewrite the way people remember him.

As it is, Langford had long periods of watching the ball himself as a freshman, a great many possessions perched outside the three-point line while the ball moved elsewhere. They notice that stuff in Bloomington.

Then again, players have changed. Would Langford have responded to instruction, worked even harder, polished the clear talent he possessed at the college level? We'll never find out.

And then there was the streak, unlike anything we've seen in Bloomington in modern times. Seven losses in a row; 12 in 13 games.

Forget the injuries and other difficulties -- if you're part of that, it's going to stick, even if you do win your final four regular-season games. In his final game, Langford struggled to 4-12 shooting in the Big Ten Tournament against Ohio State, 1-5 from three-point range. Nine points.

It's not the stuff of legacy writing. It just isn't.

That's a shame, because Langford is a good guy and, potentially, a great ballplayer. And his freshman year was solid, by just about any measure. My colleague, Rick Bozich, gave an excellent breakdown on Langford's freshman year when compared to a guy everybody acknowledges was great as a freshman, Duke's R.J. Barrett. Langford's numbers are right there.

In the months since his IU career ended, Langford has worked to overcome the notion that he's a passive player.

"I don't do all of that extra yelling and stuff that most people with 'great motors' do, I guess," he said in an interview with "But once you're on the court and once you play against me, you'll see how much of a motor I have and how hard it is to guard me and how hard it is just to keep up with me on the court. You'll realize that I am very active. Also, my teammates all know about my motor, with how much I practice and how much work I put in during game and practices."

There was no way, though, really, short of a stunning run to the Final Four, short of an injury-free campaign, for Langford to live up to the hype of his Hoosier arrival.

"I think it's fair to say that we never got a chance to see me at my best at the college level," he told ESPN, and he's right.

I hope, though, that it doesn't discourage other prep phenoms from staying home. Langford deserves credit for being willing to take on that challenge. And he took it on quietly and, once injuries set in, without complaining.

There will always be something missing from the IU pages in his scrapbook, though. Something that ended in a fashion that wasn't befitting the hopes Hoosier fans had for him, and the hopes he had for himself.

In another time, he'd perhaps have had a few years to build on what he started.

As it is, it's another example of hype being one of the toughest opponents of all. You have to be really special to beat it -- and sometimes even really special players can't manage it.

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