Bill Koch, National Columnist
Three seasons and nine games.
That’s how long it took Tom Crean to bring Indiana back from the college basketball version of Chernobyl.
The Hoosiers’ 73-72 thriller against No. 1 Kentucky on Saturday announced the return to prominence of one of the NCAA’s flagship programs. Assembly Hall rocked like it was 1987 all over again when Christian Watford sunk a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to stun the Wildcats, a shot across the bow of programs everywhere that a sleeping giant is about to awaken.
Indiana entered the polls this week at No. 18, a perfect 9-0 mark to its credit and a tasty matchup against in-state rival Notre Dame beckoning on Friday night at Conseco Fieldhouse. Kentucky is the only team to come within 11 points of a Hoosiers bunch that shoots 51.2 percent from the field and 45.8 percent from beyond the arc. Indiana is shackling the opposition to the tune of just 40 percent from the field and 32.7 percent from 3-point land, and the Hoosiers are efficient enough on the offensive end to post more assists than turnovers as a team. It’s a safe bet that Indiana will improve on the 8-46 mark in Big Ten play that Crean posted through his first three seasons in charge.
It’s taken Crean this long to reverse the damage done by Kelvin Sampson, a second program that the sidelined former Indiana and Oklahoma coach has brought to the brink of ruin. The cost to pay for Sampson’s NCAA rule breaking was far greater than his Bloomington cell phone bill – which, judging by his pattern of playing fast and loose that he established in Norman, was probably quite hefty.
Exactly why Sampson apparently felt such a strong need to cheat remains a mystery. It certainly didn’t have anything to do with a shortage of talent in his own backyard. Indiana counts nine players from the state on its current roster, including two who have started every game for the Hoosiers this season. Super freshman Cody Zeller has come as advertised, as the 6-foot-11 post man leads the way in points per game (15.0), rebounds per game (7.4), blocks and steals. Junior guard Jordan Hulls is the sort of sweet-shooting rock that any coach would love to lean on, hitting a scorching 57.1 percent from the field and 52.9 percent from 3-point land while averaging 11.2 points per game and posting a nearly 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Crean has done his typically savvy job of recruiting nationally as well – after all, this was a man who convinced Dwyane Wade to leave the South Side of Chicago to come to Marquette when the Golden Eagles were still in Conference USA. Victor Oladipo played his high school ball at DeMatha, the D.C.-area power that is usually a breeding ground for Georgetown and Maryland. The 6-foot-5 sophomore guard is second in scoring for the Hoosiers at 12.3 points per game. Will Sheehey (Florida) and Watford (Alabama) were poached from the heart of SEC country and rank third and fourth in points per game, respectively, for Indiana. Sheehey has come off the bench in all nine games and been a sixth man who would make Vinnie Johnson proud, shooting at 50.7 percent from the field and 44.4 percent from deep. Watford checks in at 11.4 points per game and connects at 48.1 percent on 3-point attempts. Verdell Jones III, the lone senior among the starting five, was recruited away from conference rival Illinois’ home base in Champaign.
The future looks even brighter for the Hoosiers, who have secured commitments from four of the state’s 13 natives who populate the 2012 Rivals.com top 150 rankings. Indiana will welcome three members of the top 50, including 6-foot-8 forward Hanner Perea, 5-foot-11 guard Kevin Ferrell and 6-foot-7 forward Jeremy Hollowell. Ron Patterson, a 6-foot-3 guard from Indianapolis, rounds out the Hoosiers’ impressive haul. It’s a far cry from the lone senior, five true freshmen and six walk-ons that Crean was forced to play during his first season in 2008-09, a year in which the Hoosiers set all the wrong kinds of school records. Indiana’s 6-25 overall mark and 1-17 finish against conference foes were both the worst in program history.
Say what you will about Bob Knight, but very few coaches combined winning and graduating players as well as The General did on the national stage during nearly three decades with the Hoosiers. There was never even a whiff of NCAA controversy that surrounded his reign. Indiana’s slide began in the decade after Knight was fired, as successor Mike Davis eventually wilted under the unrelenting pressure generated by a rabid fan base.
The situation morphed into a full-blown crash when Sampson was brought in one step ahead of the jailer, a disastrous hire by school president Michael McRobbie that nearly killed the program entirely. The NCAA was already preparing to hammer Sampson for multiple infractions committed during his time with the Sooners and shook its collective head when he repeated his transgressions at Indiana. The ensuing carnage that Crean inherited, including two players who transferred and three players who Crean kicked off the team, was predictable.
Those dark days appear to have finally passed for the Hoosiers. Saturday’s win on a national stage was a reminder of how good Indiana basketball once was. It also might serve as a preview for how good it can be again.
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Internal photos courtesy of Mike Dickbernd, IU Athletics