Why should this surprise us?
Well, maybe, because Curt Miller is surprised.
“Certainly … very much so,” he said. “We were 11-19 last season and thought we maybe had overachieved. And our three best players were seniors. They’re gone now. Every analyst, everybody who knew anything about Big Ten women’s basketball, had us ranked 12th out of 12 this year.”
In his second season as women’s coach at Indiana University, Miller’s Hoosiers are 14-0 and ranked in the Top 25 nationally for the first time since Jan. 19, 1993.
Go ahead. Be surprised. Since we’re talking about Indiana and women’s hoops, be shocked if you wish.
But some of us have caught this act before.
Miller won 258 games in 11 seasons at Bowling Green where, in 2001, he took over a “dysfunctional program” and presided over a five-year plan to rebuild. By year 3 the Falcons had 20-plus wins and a year later Miller’s team began a string of eight straight Mid-American Conference regular-season championships and postseason tournament appearances.
He got a six-year contract at IU and “didn’t feel pressured to win right away because there was not a great tradition of winning women’s basketball. So I had a six-year plan in mind here. We’re certainly stepping in the right direction.”
Of course, Miller is the first to point out there is a lot of season to go, including a rugged Big Ten slate that picks up Saturday against visiting Ohio State after an early-week game at Purdue was postponed by weather.
“We’re 22-4 in our nonconference games since I’ve been here, and I know people will belly-ache about the schedule,” Miller said.
But he isn’t about to apologize. It’s all about building.
“This program hasn’t been very good, so we had to establish being a good mid-major-type program before we could worry about being a good Big Ten program,” he said. “We’ve won six true road games, which leads all BCS conference schools this season. So we’ve accomplished some things.”
Miller’s focus a year ago was on changing the culture, building intangibles, team bonding, community service. He wanted to have a team with good chemistry that worked hard every day.
Then he recruited like crazy and brought in a large freshman class that he calls “fearless. They don’t understand they’re not supposed to be very good. We’ve put them together with five seniors who have a great urgency to win before their careers end.”
Crowds that numbered in the hundreds not too long ago now approach the 3,000 mark at Assembly Hall.
“There’s a lot of excitement around Bloomington, a buzz in the arena on game nights that longtime fans say they’ve never seen here before,” Miller said. “I think [fans] like our kids and the effort they see them give.”
Yes, we’ve seen this all before. It is how Miller built the BG program into the MAC’s best. Now he has Indiana ranked No. 22, the highest in school history.
“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” he said. “There’s no reason to do it differently here than we did at Bowling Green. You recruit the right kids the right way. There are no corners being cut. I believe you win with the right kids in the right kind of locker room.”
He keeps an eye on another locker room too, with former assistant Jennifer Roos off to a great start as his successor at BG. The Falcons won 24 games a year ago and are 12-2 thus far in 2013-14.
“I’m really proud of the job she is doing, and I’m proud of the juniors and seniors there because they were once my kids. I root like crazy for them.”
The Bowling Green influence at Indiana is accelerated by the presence of former BG assistants Brandi Poole and Kevin Eckert on Miller’s staff. Plus, ex-Falcon standout Liz Honegger is IU’s director of basketball operations.
So far, so good, although Miller knows the Big Ten slate will be a bumpy road at times.
“How good we’ll be in the Big Ten, ultimately, I don’t know,” he said. “But we have made some big strides. For now, we’re trying to be a hard out, a thorn in people’s side.”
Then he’ll start envisioning championships.
We’ve seen this before.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.