Romeo Langford is the chosen prince of Indiana basketball and is leading the revival of a blueblood program
They weren't sure how things would be once Langford got to Indiana; turns out he's better than anyone could have expected
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- On Saturday afternoon, approximately 18,000 fans will fill Bankers Life Fieldhouse for what has annually become the biggest regular-season college basketball event in the state of Indiana: the Crossroads Classic.
Most in the arena will show up not just to root for their team, but also to get a look at the advancement of a local legend. They'll be there for the bonus of witnessing Hoosiers freshman Romeo Langford. Langford's fan base transcends his school. He became a folk hero over the past four years at Indiana's New Albany High, where he scored more than 3,000 points, won a state championship and star-turned into one of the most well-known people throughout Indiana.
All this before turning 18.
Langford's reverence was so commanding that when he'd play away games, opposing high school student sections wouldn't taunt him. They wouldn't chant "you suck!" or "OH-VER-RAY-TED!" You know what they'd scream, thousands of them?
"IU! ... IU! ... IU!"
In reality, the fact Langford's a Hoosier is a personal plot twist. From the outside looking in, it seems kismet. Local Indiana prodigy heads to the homeland, etc., etc. Why wouldn't he, right? But Langford originally didn't consider playing for IU. He told his family as much, for the first time, just three days before he wound up committing to Archie Miller and the Hoosiers.
"My wife was kind of leaning toward Vanderbilt," Tim Langford said. "I said, 'Son, the only thing I want to say is I don't want you picking a school because of the what fans want, you're from this state, or anything like that.'"
Miller and his staff had no relationship with Romeo whatsoever when they started recruiting him, after Miler left Dayton for Indiana. In fact, the Langfords wouldn't allow the Indiana staff -- keeping in practice with other schools recruiting Romeo -- to call their son directly in the first six or seven months. And even when they eventually did, Romeo would rarely pick up the phone.
When it was down to IU, KU and Vandy, Romeo and his family were so focused on finishing high school and winning another state championship, they kept the coaches away from directly contacting him with the exception of one call and one text per week.
"I wouldn't let them violate it," his father said. "If you do, I'm going to cut you off the list."
For Romeo, opportunity meant the most. If this is going to be a one-year thing, as most expect it to be, then Indiana's opportunity was most enticing. There was something he could seize there.
Plus, staying home wasn't the burden many projected it to be; those who know Langford best claim all the fawning and exaltation has never affected his personality or demeanor for the worse. It's not an exaggeration to say tens of thousands of people (and they're not all kids and teenagers) either have Langford's autograph or a photo with him -- or both. Tim Langford said his son began signing things for fans when he was 11. It was at some point in middle school when a smaller child came up to ask little Romeo for his signature. He didn't want to.
"I said to him, 'LeBron James is your favorite player,'" Tim Langford said. "What if you see LeBron somewhere, in an airport or something, you ask him to sign something and take a picture, and he told you he doesn't have the time. How would that make you feel?'"
Romeo gave his dad a quizzical look, and then the young boy began to understand. So pretty much ever since, he's taken his time and given it to so many, and in effect became the LeBron James of Indiana high school basketball.
"He already had in his mind that, after the games, he wanted to be part of it," his father said. "Even after losses. Sometimes his high school coach would ask if he just didn't want to do it. But I always told him to let him sign some, don't let him sign none at all."
Exemplification of this happened this past March, when Langford's high school career dashed to a devastating end when his team lost on a last-second shot in the state semifinals. Adorers and autograph seekers came in hordes again and waited near the locker room. For the first time, dad thought it might be appropriate to let Romeo just exit in peace and without fanfare and a signature session. But Romeo wouldn't have it, saying: "No, Dad, I want to do it."
"And it touched my heart when he said that," Tim Langford said. "You're on your high horse or your low horse, you've got to stand up and be yourself. That was a tough pill to swallow. He's got that 'it' man."
So on April 30, 2018, Langford requited the requests he heard for four years in almost every gym he ever stepped in. It's hard to effectively quantify these things, but it's plausible that Langford's decision to play at Indiana meant more to the state and its diehard basketball contingent than any other recruit's commitment to any other school in modern history.
While Zion Williamson and the rest of Duke's freaky freshman foursome have come to dominate a lot of the attention in college basketball through the first six weeks of the season, Langford has kind of quietly met expectations that weren't fair to attach to him to begin with. (Here at CBS Sports, in terms of value and statistical impact.)
Langford was tagged as the savior, which was unavoidable and yet far from practical. He was to be, if not the emancipator of IU basketball, then its prince of a new era. So far, the results are encouraging. Indiana is 8-2, ranked and Langford has been the team's most pivotal player. He's averaging 18.2 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists. He's also terrific at drawing contact; the scoring phenom with the unmistakable gold-accented hair is averaging 7.1 free throw attempts per game, which is second of among all freshmen (East Carolina's Jayden Gardner: 9.0).
There have been some on-court adjustments from the 31.2 points he averaged across his final three seasons as a high schooler, but it's been for the better. Langford's seldom had the luxury of galloping with such good guards or been given the benefit of playing alongside true bigs. This has also allowed Langford, known almost exclusively for his scoring touch, to hone his defense.
"For sure there was an adjustment period," he said of getting to college and actually learning what defense truly entails.
In preseason, the first real defensive workout Langford was put through was hell.
"It's probably the hardest workout I ever had in my life," he said.
And what was so hard about it?
"[To] actually play defense," Langford said.
A couple of months ago, Langford had no idea what he was doing on that end of the floor. In fact, early in the season there was a film session where Miller sharply singled out Langford in front of the team and showed how he was failing. Afterward, Langford was asked how it felt to be called out like that. He was especially tough on himself, and that signaled something really good from within. There was no fighting the critique. No ego. No rebuttal against his coach.
The former five-star prospect who had accolades tossed on him like pixie dust has settled in with a humility that's made him a lovable and coachable teammate. It's also enabled him to thrive on offense and led to labor-saving progressions at the high-major level.
"For us to be at our best, guys on the team have to have a tremendous amount of respect for our process and what we deem valuable," Miller said. "You can't have one guy being treated one way and another being treated another way. It never works. When we're showing film, whether it's good, bad or ugly, I have to bring things to light. In some ways, some of the greatest film sessions and responses you get is when you do bring to the table -- when a guy like Romeo had to see himself, hear himself -- what he's not doing well in a room of his peers and coaches. What's his response? His response is always the same. 'I got you.' Whether he wants to hear it or not, he'll always look himself in the mirror."
Langford's a technician of the 2-point jumper which, rumor has it, is now an endangered shot in college and professional basketball. But spacing creates opportunities and there's still clearly value in pinching the soft belly of the defense, between 12 and 16 feet away from the rim. Langford most often studies DeMar DeRozan, old Dwyane Wade tape and in-his-prime Scottie Pippen videos. They're the slashers who've thrived in the mid-range, the place where Langford built his prestige.
And he's also got a nose for moving just so in transition.
"He's a gifted north-south player," Miller said. "When he goes, he goes. He has a great way of creating space and shooting over the top of people."
Thanks in no small part to Miller's coaching adaptation and Langford's knack for working angles, Indiana's 2-point shooting is up from 52.5 percent a season ago to 58.2 through 10 games this season. Langford's making 59.6 percent from 2-point range, which is mostly happening against man-to-man schemes. According to Synergy, which dutifully tracks gobs of player-production data, Langford's faced man-to-man defense 91.2 percent of the time he's been on the floor this season. In those sets, he's shooting 51 percent and averaging 1.07 points per possession.
In pick-and-roll, Langford's proving to be a natural against bigger competition. He's getting to the rim but also hitting consistently from mid-range. In 48 pick-and-roll opportunities so far this season, Langford's shooting 57.6 percent and averaging 1.33 points per possession. That's among the most successful rates in college basketball.
He's been the goods. And in fact, has stepped up and been an alpha alongside senior Juwan Morgan, who was one of the five best returning players in the Big Ten coming into the season.
"I would use the word grounded," Miller said of Langford. "For as much recruiting hype, recognition, accolades, especially coming from Indiana with his high school prep career being glorified the way it was, you don't know what to expect when you get him in a setting of mature guys, older guys in the locker room, campus life. He's just grounded. He doesn't get too high, doesn't get too low. When it comes to off of the floor, he's as easygoing as you get. He is not a high-maintenance kid at all."
The bananas don't taste that good anymore.
Langford grew up in a loving household with two older sisters and a pair of parents who pushed him to be his best. But he can hardly stomach bananas. They're his trigger food. It was his father who fostered a regiment for Romeo since before puberty. Tim Langford made sure Romeo was doing his allotment of daily pushups, taking the right vitamins -- and always eating a banana.
"He's just grounded. He doesn't get too high, doesn't get too low."Indiana coach Archie Miller on freshman Romeo Langford
"My dad, he's the more aggressive one," Langford said. "When I say aggressive, I mean he's going to tell me what to do, the more strict one than my mom."
Sabrina Langford, Romeo's mother, used to play basketball and run track; Romeo most noticeably inherited her jumping ability and tender demeanor. These days, Langford's blank-faced on the court to the point where he sometimes looks disinterested. But when he was younger, bashfulness didn't come easy. As a kid he was demonstrative on the floor. He would mouth back to referees. That's when his father told him not to show any emotion on the court -- because it's a way of conceding defeat. And there would be no grandstanding.
"First thing my dad told me is we don't do that celebrating stuff after you score a touchdown," Romeo said of when he played football. "You act like you've been there."
On his way to becoming one of the most lauded high school athletes in Indiana state history, Langford avoided any big-head syndrome. You wouldn't fault him if he was a little peculiar, or arrogant, or wired differently. Many five-star prospects develop god-like complexes, it's just a matter of how publicly they display them.
With Romeo, that hasn't been the case. The basketball talent that made his situation extraordinary might even fall short to how he matured into handling all that fame, expectation, pressure and attention. There is no one in college basketball now, not even Zion Williamson, who lived such an intimate existence as a basketball hero for so long.
"At first, when I was 15 or 16 and getting newspaper interviews, I didn't really like it," Langford said. "It was kind of annoying at the time, until I got more down the road and kept on doing it. Then I realized the place I want to be, where I want to go and the person I want to be, it's going to come with it. So I've got to get used to it. That's part of being a professional."
Speak to those around Indiana's program and they'll tell you that Langford's integration into college life has been seamless and extraordinary. Make no mistake, there are a lot of players much less talented than Langford who are, as many coaches would put it, a much bigger pain in the ass. But Langford's hyper-aware of himself. He's likable and keen on his weaknesses. He acknowledges screw-ups immediately and doesn't shy away from criticism or being coached. Excuses are hard to pull out of him. His basketball intelligence has helped so much in respect to all this.
"He's kind of a quick study," Miller said. "He's a smart guy."
And if you didn't know this team or who Langford was but got to spend 24 hours with Indiana before a game, went to every meeting, were in the locker room, at pregame meal, shuffled through walkthrough, hopped on the bus ride and tried to pick out the future lottery pick with all the natural god-given talent, Langford likely wouldn't be the one who stood out.
Those around the program call him entirely normal, which is fascinating given how abnormal his upbringing through basketball was the past four-plus years, when he was treated by, no exaggeration, tens of thousands of people in the state -- if not more -- as a borderline immortal.
"I think it helped me a lot," Langford said. "I probably couldn't see myself two years ago, no, I couldn't see myself being able to do the things I'm doing. Being on my own, being mature, handling things the way I have been."
Langford's straight-faced court demeanor hides his winsome smart-aleck tendencies off of it. Coaches and teammates say he's funny. Witty. After a practice earlier this season when he was being dogged for his defense, Langford made a big stop in a game.
"You still don't think I can play defense?" he quipped to one of his coaches, sporting a childlike smirk when he said it.
He's also got a bag of imitations of his teammates and coaches. Miller hasn't seen Langford's impersonation yet, but apparently it's his best one.
"He's got relationships with our graduate managers, with everyone on the staff," Miller said. "He's got a little goofball to him, to be honest with you, and it's refreshing. You're around so many types of people in college basketball over the course of time as a player and a coach. You want these guys to do the right things and be around the right things. When it comes to the game there's so much pressure, and he's coachable."
Looking at the situation up close, it's clear to see that for the first time in at least three years Romeo is allowed to be Romeo. He can be himself without the surrounding babel of where he would eventually wind up. Inside the walls of Assembly Hall, and around campus, he's mostly allowed to be free and himself. He isn't besieged with selfie requests or autographs though, yes, they still do happen on occasion.
"I haven't felt famous at all, for real, surprisingly," Langford said. "It's pretty cool not to have to deal with a whole bunch of people bombarding all the time. I can just be a normal kid. ... It is kind of weird. Some of it is I think they're kind of scared to come up and say something to me."
Yet there are still those moments, like when a fellow student said to him some weeks back: "My little brother would be so excited if I got this picture with you."
It's interesting how someone who isn't shy about any of that can still be so quiet. Reserved. He's taken on a lot of his mother's personality and combined it with his father's competitiveness. And since he arrived in Bloomington, it's been no tug of war between the so-dubbed Chosen One and the coaching staff. There's been a natural compromise of styles -- and Indiana basketball is gaining speed.
"Romeo is Romeo because he's an all-around player; very unselfish player," his father said. "He's good to get along with. He's that type of friend or person you're going to get complete honesty from."
As the season's gone on, Langford's lost his anxiety. He grew up in front of so many who are now watching his games inside Assembly Hall. In last week's victory over Louisville, Langford coolly hit two free throws to help clinch the win. In that moment, the team learned that moments probably can't swell too large for Langford.
"The sell of the opportunity and being somebody who would be at the forefront of the revival of Indiana was big," Miller said. "At the beginning of something that, 10, 12 years from now, a long time from now, they look back on and say, man, he got the ball rolling."
Langford will always be a huge figure at that school and in that state; his first name is all that needs to be said. But for most players, Saturday's Crossroads Classic (CBS and CBSSports.com) will be a big stage and a special opportunity. With Langford, the intensity and attention will be a downgrade vs. much of what he's encountered since he was 14. Because for so long, every game was about him -- even if he didn't want it to be.
Now that he's stepped into the biggest role of his life, things are, actually, finally settling. Now, watch him go.
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