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Indiana basketball is wasting its one season with Romeo Langford

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The superstar freshman has been as good as advertised, but his team is still flirting with missing the NCAA tournament.

Nebraska v Indiana Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

In an era that is not supposed to be conducive to the existence of high school basketball cult heroes, Romeo Langford was exactly that in the state of Indiana (and the Louisville, Kentucky metropolitan area) for four years.

The rare modern prep superstar who spent all of his high school years at the same place, Langford racked up 3,002 points during his career at New Albany High School, the fourth most of any player in the history of the state of Indiana. As a senior, he averaged 35.5 points, 9.9 rebounds, 3.7 assists, and three steals per game on his way to solidifying his status as a top-five player in the recruiting class of 2018.

Those types of accolades will generate buzz anywhere in the country, but in an area of America where basketball is commonly referred to as a religion, the product is certain to be even more extreme.

Children went nuts after getting Langford’s New Albany Bulldogs basketball jersey for Christmas.

Fans lined up by the hundreds after games during Langford’s senior year to snag his autograph. The star would sit there for hours making sure no one went home upset.

The scenes drew constant comparisons to the days of Damon Bailey and the peak of “Hoosier Hysteria.” Langford’s emergence as a larger than life presence in the heart of basketball country also resulted in everyone in that area becoming an expert on his recruitment. Suddenly, anyone who cared remotely about basketball had a source.

Romeo’s mom HATES John Calipari

Romeo’s mom LOVES John Calipari

Romeo actually grew up a Duke fan

The Vanderbilt stuff is a smoke screen, he’s been telling his boys for weeks that he’s actually going to Kansas

It’s always been Indiana, anyone who’s ever told you differently was told to do that by Romeo himself

The rumors and inside sources vanished into the ether forever on April 30, when — after a ceremony that lasted nearly an hour, included multiple speakers, and featured Langford being compared favorably to both Oscar Robertson and Abraham Lincoln — Langford announced he would be playing his college basketball for the Indiana Hoosiers.

Immediately, the hopes of Hoosier fans rose to their highest levels since 2012-13, the season where Indiana began the year ranked No. 1 and ultimately earned a top seed in the NCAA tournament. Sure, Langford was almost certain to spend no more than seven months in Bloomington, but there was ample reason to believe those seven months might serve as the necessary jolt to shock IU basketball back its rightful place near the top of the college hoops food chain. After all, the program had just a year prior made a coaching hire that had received a near unanimous thumbs up from the coaching world. It also didn’t hurt that it was returning one of the best players in the Big Ten in senior forward Juwan Morgan.

At the very worst, Archie Miller working with arguably the top inside-outside duo in the country seemed like a combination sure to entertain Hoosier fans for four months and point the program onto the proper path towards even greater success. At best, it seemed like a combination with the potential to produce that success on its own, perhaps even to the point where IU might play its way beyond the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2002.

As we near the end of January, even the more reserved of those two mindsets feels foolishly naive.

Following Tuesday night’s 73-66 defeat at Northwestern, Indiana has now lost five straight. Three of those defeats, including one against arch-rival Purdue, have come by double-digits. A team that has spent the bulk of 2018-19 inside the national rankings is now trying to quell legitimate fears that it might spend March outside the NCAA tournament field of 68.

Langford, for his part, has been about as good as advertised. Despite some subpar outside shooting (21.7 percent from three), Langford has been the most efficient finisher at the rim in the country. Even with back-to-back less than stellar performances against Purdue and Northwestern, his season averages of 17.6 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 2.4 assists per game make a compelling case he’s been one of the five best freshmen in college basketball.

And yet, the average American sports fan doesn’t associate Romeo Langford’s name as being in the same stratosphere as Zion Williamson or R.J. Barrett.

The stellar play of a much-hyped freshman playing for one of the most well-known programs in the sport has gone largely unnoticed for a couple of reasons. First, unlike guys like Williamson or Murray State super sophomore Ja Morant, Langford doesn’t do his damage above the rim. Being the most efficient finisher at the rack in the country is cool, but being better than everyone at playing angles and utilizing the backboard isn’t going to lead off SportsCenter or rack up a million views on social media.

The other reason Langford continues to fly below the national radar is because his team isn’t doing anything that forces the rest of the country to take notice. Indiana had a couple of nice early non-conference home wins over Marquette and Louisville, and that’s about it. The Hoosiers weren’t competitive against either of the two best teams they’ve faced this season — Duke and Michigan — and the only noteworthy thing about them at the moment is their prolonged streak of futility.

If you’re a Hoosier fan, the most troubling part of Indiana’s current situation is the lack of a reason to believe that things are going to get much better.

IU is a dreadful outside shooting team, and defenses are now contracting to prevent Langford from killing them off the bounce, daring his teammates to beat them from the perimeter. Miller’s team hasn’t come close to answering that bell. They are 10-of-55 from three over their last three games, and 26.8 percent from beyond the arc as a team in conference play. That is easily the worst mark in the Big Ten. Morgan is posting his typically productive stats (16.5 points and 7.9 rebounds per game) in the post, but he would need to almost double those numbers for them to be enough to adequately compensate for his team’s lack of a supporting cast.

There’s no question that Miller is fully aware of and suitably annoyed by his team’s current trajectory. On Tuesday, he suspended junior guard Devonte Green, presently IU’s fourth-leading scorer. Following the loss to Northwestern, Miller was in no mood to discuss the specifics of that suspension.

Q – Not having Devonte (Green) right now, how much does that hurt?

Obviously he’s played a role on our team this year, and he’s played minutes, but he’s not available. So we just go with what we go with.

Q – Can you shed any light on what happened and how long he’ll be out?

No. There was a statement issued, just go to that.

Miller’s work this season has already resulted in some heavy criticism from some prominent IU voices, most notably former Hoosier player/coach and current ESPN analyst Dan Dakich. If Indiana doesn’t hear its name called on Selection Sunday, that collection of detractors will assuredly broaden.

The hiring of Miller didn’t come hand-in-hand with a belief that he could turn a program that lost in the first round of the 2017 NIT into a national player in two seasons, and his supporters will argue that the signing of Langford has clouded that fact. The flip side is that a number of second and first-year coaches across America who inherited situations comparable to Miller’s are having far fewer issues at the moment. It’s hard enough to be patient as an Indiana fan who knows the program’s history but hasn’t seen the Hoosiers play in a regional final in nearly two decades. It’s even harder when you’re forced to look at the near immediate success guys like Kevin Keatts at NC State, Kermit Davis at Ole Miss, Will Wade at LSU, Mike Hopkins at Washington and Chris Mack at Louisville have been enjoying.

Langford’s story isn’t trending towards a cheerless ending. He’s well on his way to earning All-Big Ten honors and he maintains the same status as a projected 2019 lottery pick that he held three months ago. By any conceivable measure, he’s proven himself worthy of the status of being the state of Indiana’s latest basketball luminary.

Still, with just six weeks to play in the regular season, it’s hard not to feel like something is being wasted here. Langford might be one of the five most productive college freshmen in the country, but he certainly isn’t one of the five most discussed. His team received significant billing heading into the season as a Big Ten sleeper, now it’s only discussion-worthy because of an unanticipated losing streak.

The combination of Indiana and basketball has been known to produce some storybook tales, and this one felt awfully easy to write. Maybe that’s why right now it all feels so wrong.