AP Sports Writer
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- Indiana athletic director Fred Glass must be ready for the game each time he goes out.
The minute he's recognized at the supermarket or the barbershop, he knows he'll be doing an impromptu news conference. He has learned to expect the sit-down interview if he shows up at his wife's optometrist's office. And when he sees that hand-written envelope from Libertyville, Ind., he realizes he better have a good answer for that 90-year-old retired schoolteacher, too.
In Indiana, seemingly everyone is a basketball expert and talking about it has no boundaries.
"My favorite story is this little old lady who writes me in longhand and says 'I don't know much about basketball, but I really enjoy watching the boys play, and can you also explain to me why when we're playing a 1-3-1 zone, we don't push anyone out to the elbow?'" Glass said with not even a hint of a chuckle. "She says all this after she says she doesn't know much about basketball."
Here, basketball is treated like a king's sport. Stars are considered royalty and the Hoosiers still rule the state, especially now, just two wins away from their first Final Four trip since 2002 after one of the grandest comeback stories in its storied history.
Five years ago, coach Tom Crean took over a program that had just two returning players and had been sullied by scandal.
Over the next three years, the proud Hoosiers won just 28 games. Then came Cody Zeller's commitment, Christian Watford's buzzer-beating 3-pointer against then-No. 1 Kentucky, a trip to the round of the 16 and suddenly the Hoosiers were back.
But even during the bleak years, the passion for Indiana basketball never wavered.
The Hoosiers continued to be ranked in the top 10 nationally in attendance -- even as Butler reached back-to-back national championship games and rival Purdue contended for Big Ten titles while Indiana lagged at the bottom of the league.
There was no shortage in interest, either. People talked about it year-round on radio talk shows and message boards, at Little League baseball games and swim meets and certainly at local bars.
So when the Hoosiers hit it big last year, of course the eager fans went bonkers. Glass said from the 2010-11 academic school year to 2011-12, alumni donations increased by $1 million. That's up an additional 22 percent this year.
Merchandise sales have increased about 30 percent since last year, too, and the team's famous candy-stripe pants, which cost $75, have become all the rage in grade schools, middle schools and high schools around the state. They're so popular that some people who ordered the striped pants in October are still waiting for their Christmas gifts to arrive.
According to Glass, even some within the athletic department didn't realize Indiana was last ranked No. 1 in the preseason poll in 1979, had gone 20 years without winning an outright Big Ten crown or had earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament only two other times. And now that they're back in the regional semifinals, facing fourth-seeded Syracuse on Thursday night in Washington, Hoosiers fans are holding their emotions in check for something far bigger -- their first title run since 1987 when Keith Smart beat the Orange on that famous baseline shot.
"This year has been different because the expectations were so high. But I think it's harder to exceed lofty goals than to overcome milder ones," Glass said. "So we're not dancing and celebrating the Sweet 16, because that's what we want at Indiana and that's what we expect."
Basketball is the great unifier in Indiana, bringing together young fans and old, boys and girls, those from urban areas and tiny rural communities. For decades, of course, the state high school basketball tournament was up for grabs for any school, no matter how small.
Dan Dakich, a radio talk show host who grew up in the northwest Indiana, played high school ball at Andrean, near Chicago. He played at Indiana and served as a longtime assistant on Bob Knight's staff before taking the head coaching gig at Bowling Green, then returned to Indiana in 2008 and wound up serving as the interim coach when Kelvin Sampson was fired amid NCAA recruiting violations.
"The one thing that really demonstrated it to me was when Indiana was ready to get rid of Kelvin Sampson even though he had a good team and even though he was winning," Dakich said. "Don't get me wrong. I liked Kelvin. But the fans didn't just want to win, they wanted to win the right way and you just don't always find that."