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Super story by Gregg Doyel

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Jalen Blackmon, Khristian Lander and Joey Hart are special Indiana stories in NCAA tourney

Gregg Doyel

Indianapolis Star

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One team from Indiana made it into the 2024 NCAA tournament. Just one, and we grow basketball here! But it’s like the corn and soybean we also nurture around this state of rising silos: We share with the rest of the country.

Nearly four dozen players from Indiana will play in the NCAA tournament, just seven from Purdue, so let’s celebrate some of the best of the best exports — players, people — with this single thought:

May some of you make some Bryce Drew magic, circa that shot in 1998, and get into the “One Shining Moment” montage.

Jalen Blackmon gets rightful due

Stetson's Jalen Blackmon drives to the rim during the ASUN championship game at the Edmunds Center in DeLand, Sunday, March 10, 2024.

Hard to say “this poor kid” about a player who scored 2,269 points at Marion High and averages 21.5 ppg for Stetson, but … this poor kid, you know? Completely overshadowed in high school, then again when he transferred from Grand Canyon State to Stetson, by the Disney movie down the street: Luke Brown of Blackford.

IT’S BRACKET MADNESS: Enter USA TODAY’s basketball tournament bracket contests for a chance at $1 million prize.

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Don’t you dare read that as a diss of either of them, either. Brown took a downtrodden basketball school, once the pride of Blackford, and restored it — and the town of 12,000 — to new heights. He deserved every bit of attention he received after becoming the No. 4 scorer in Indiana schoolboy history, and that attention followed him to Stetson when he transferred there from Ball State in 2022. He joined another transfer in Stetson’s recruiting class that season, someone named, let’s see … ah, right:

Jalen Blackmon.

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Typical, you know? Eighteen miles down the road from Blackford, in the same four years that Luke Brown was scoring 3,011 career points, Blackmon was finishing 20th in state history and breaking his dad’s school record and becoming the third Blackmon among the top 150 scorers in IHSAA boys history. Older brother James Blackmon Jr., a McDonald’s All American who went to IU, is 15th at 2,387. James Blackmon Sr. scored 1,897 points and went to Kentucky.

Out of those deep shadows, Jalen Blackmon has emerged as the most prolific college scorer from the Indiana high school class of 2021, one of the most star-studded senior classes in Indiana schoolboy history. Remember these names? State coaches and media voted Caleb Furst of Blackhawk Christian as the 2021 IndyStar Mr. Basketball winner over a field that included Brown and Silver Creek’s Trey Kaufman-Renn.

From 2019: Latest Blackmon in pipeline just might crack Damon Bailey’s scoring record

And if there’s ever been a better fourth-place finisher for Mr. Basketball than Lafayette Jeff’s Brooks Barnhizer, someone needs to tell me. Barnhizer is another Indiana kid, another export, in the NCAA tournament as well. He’s averaging 14.6 ppg and 7.5 rebounds at Northwestern, which has reached back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances for the first time in school history, and here we go again … writing about someone other than Jalen Blackmon.

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His day’s coming, and to be clear, he’s had plenty of days already. Like, do you have any idea what he did in the Atlantic Sun championship game against Austin Peay?

Try 43 points, and Stetson needed all of them, most notably his burst of 16 points in four minutes — by himself — to rally the Hatters out of a seven-point deficit in the second half.

Blackmon gets the largest stage imaginable Friday, when he leads the 16th-seeded Hatters against the No. 1 overall seed, UConn, at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. We’ve seen a No. 16 seed take down a No. 1 twice in the past six years. If it happens again Friday — please let it be so — Jalen Blackmon will be trending internationally.

Khristian Lander gets the right school

Western Kentucky's Khristian Lander (4) goes up for a layup as MTSU's Jared Coleman-Jones defends during Friday's CUSA semifinals.

The hype machine that is college basketball recruiting was cruel to Khristian Lander, who was minding his own business in 2020 at Evansville Reitz, finishing his junior season and being anointed a five-star recruit, when IU coach Archie Miller used him in a desperate attempt to save his career.

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Miller was about to enter his fourth season at IU with a 55-43 record (26-32 in the Big Ten), and he could see the writing — and hear the grumbling — around the walls of Assembly Hall. He needed to do something dramatic to change the trajectory of his failing tenure in Bloomington, so this is what he did:

Talked Lander into reclassifying from a high school junior to senior, so he could skip his final year of high school and sign with IU before competing colleges knew what had happened. Miller wasn’t doing it for Lander — please — but himself. He needed something to make the #iubb fan base happy, and landing a homegrown five-star recruit qualifies.

From Doyel’s #2020 SeniorClass Project: What Khristian Lander gave up to sign early with IU

Miller knew Lander wasn’t ready to contribute to IU as a true freshman. How do I know? Put it this way: I knew that staff well. When Miller played at North Carolina State from 1998-2002, the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer had a Wolfpack beat writer named … wait for it … Gregg Doyel.

Me!

I knew Archie. Knew his staff. And they told me, that summer when I was asking just how special this kid Lander was going to be, that he wasn’t physically ready to be special. Not yet anyway. They didn’t admit to rushing him into college — they did not say that — but they were cautioning me not to build up Lander as some sort of savior in his freshman season. What were they hoping for, realistically, from Lander as a 17-year-old college freshman? That’s what I asked.

Maybe 15 minutes a game. That’s what they told me.

Lander nearly got there, averaging 10.1 mpg. He was severely outmatched, as you’d expect from someone so young and so slight –6-1, 160 as a high school junior, sorry, senior — and that freshman season crushed his confidence.

By midseason the kid couldn’t make a layup, missing 16 consecutive 2-point field goal tries and not having much more success from behind the arc. Lander finished the season shooting 25.7% from the floor — 23.1% on 2’s, 27.3% on 3’s — but soon afterward, two wrongs were righted:

Miller was fired four days after the season ended.

Lander left IU the following year for Western Kentucky.

Lander has become a solid contributor and occasional starter for the Hilltoppers, averaging 9.1 ppg in 23.2 minutes, with 10 starts in 25 games. Starting for injured Dontaie Allen in the Conference USA title game, Lander had 11 points and season highs of six rebounds and four steals in 33 minutes as Western Kentucky fended off UTEP 78-71.

Lander makes a triumphant return to Indiana on Friday when 15th-seeded Western Kentucky plays second-seeded Marquette at Gainbridge Fieldhouse at 2 p.m. Come, IU fans, and wear your crimson and cheer for a kid who deserved better than what he got — and now has it.

Joey Hart story gets the right update

Kentucky's bench erupts after Joey Hart (20) hit a three point shot during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Marshall in Lexington, Ky., Friday, Nov. 24, 2023. (AP Photo/James Crisp)

Something wonderful happened for Joey Hart earlier this season. For months, things had been so hard, so awful, but then came Nov. 24, and it was just wonderful.

First, the background. Hart was a 2023 Indiana All-Star at Linton-Stockton, a University of Central Florida signee and one of the top scorers in the state at 23.7 ppg when his high school coach was arrested on charges of driving while intoxicated. This was four days before Linton-Stockton’s Class 2A semistate game. The coach was suspended for the rest of the season.

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The coach was his father, Joey Hart Sr.

Joey Jr. went out and scored 52 points at semistate — 29 against Parke Heritage, then 23 that night against Brownstown Central — and then had 18 points in the first half of the Class 2A title game against Blackhawk Christian, matching the Braves’ entire output and helping Linton-Stockton to a 29-18 lead. But the weight, the hurt, was just too much, and in the second half Hart’s superhuman stamina gave out. He was 1-for-14 from the floor in those final two quarters as Blackhawk Christian rallied for a 52-45 win.

At the final horn the rest of Hart gave out: sobbing, knees buckling, supported by teammates.

Doyel from 2023: Class 2A state title game a story of fathers and sons, love and loss

A month later, Linton-Stockton decided to part ways permanently with Joey Hart Sr. A month after that, Joey asked out of his scholarship to UCF and was granted a full release. He wanted to be closer to home, and chose Kentucky over IU.

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Three months later, his grandfather dies. Not just his grandfather, but his namesake, his coach, his next-door neighbor and best friend. Joseph L. Hart, who’d coached his son at Dugger and then coached for him at Linton-Stockton, was 79. He was a Marine, a Vietnam veteran — two tours — a hero.

So, Nov. 24.

Ever seen a kid more due for something good than Joey Hart? He’s at Kentucky, stuck on John Calipari’s depth chart behind a bunch of future pros, playing just two minutes in the Wildcats’ five games, when he gets into the game in the final three minutes of a blowout of Marshall.

Kentucky has 115 points with 40 seconds left when Hart drills a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer to break the school’s single-game scoring record. Rupp Arena exploded, and you should’ve seen the scene in the Wildcats’ locker room afterward.

“Joey making a 3 was a big deal for our team,” Calipari told reporters afterward. “They were showering him in there. They just were so happy for him.”

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Hart played in just four of Kentucky’s final 26 games, because life isn’t a fairy tale, but then again … who knows? Kentucky holds a Pro Day in the preseason, a chance for NBA scouts to see all of Coach Cal’s future pros, and an injury to UK sophomore guard Adou Thiero thrust Hart into drills. So what does he do? Goes 8-for-9 on 3-pointers. Two days later, at Kentucky’s Big Blue Madness, Hart won the team’s dunk competition.

A month later, he hit the record-breaking shot against Marshall.

Four months later, he and the No. 3-seeded Wildcats play Oakland in a first-rounder at Pittsburgh. That’s Friday. His mother will be there, and his younger sister and twin brothers — and of course his father. Joey Hart Sr. has been texting with me on Wednesday morning and casually mentions what I’m saying is the most thrilling part of this unfolding story:

370 days without a drink.

Find IndyStar columnist Gregg Doyel on Twitter at @GreggDoyelStar or at www.facebook.com/greggdoyelstar.

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