Tom Crean’s starting center sits in a sweat suit, pinned to the bench by the NCAA’s eligibility process. His top returning scorer just pitched his protective walking boot. His best athlete is 11 months into an exhaustive rehab of his shattered left knee.
No wonder one computer formula had Crean’s Indiana University team ranked outside the top 100. The Hoosiers have started this season with two 20-point victories, but the CIA can’t find anybody prepared to pick them higher than eighth in the formidable Big Ten.
Now it was 12:40 p.m. on Nov. 10, and Crean was in his office, primed to take the call he’d been awaiting since April 2, 2008, the day he left Marquette for Indiana:
At 1:05 that day, Cody Zeller, a consensus top-20 Class of 2011 recruit from Washington, Indiana, a hoops-obsessed town about 65 miles southwest of Bloomington, was having his press conference to announce his college choice.
Zeller is a 6-10 forward with double-double potential. He would make three calls. One to Roy Williams of North Carolina, who coaches Cody’s older brother, Tyler, and had made at least a half-dozen trips to woo him. One to Brad Stevens, who has everybody convinced more Sweet 16s and Final Fours are coming to Butler.
And one to Crean, who needed Zeller the way Tom Izzo once needed Mateen Cleaves or Matt Painter needed Robbie Hummel — a symbol it was cool to sign with the home-state university again.
Crean answered his phone at 12:40. Zeller spoke.
“Unfortunately I have to call a couple of coaches who I really like and tell them that I’m not coming,” Zeller said.
Crean inhaled, his stomach plunging into complete somersault mode.
“But this is my third call and I want to play at Indiana,” Zeller said.
“I didn’t know what to say,” Crean said.
“He was pretty excited,” said Zeller. “He didn’t say anything at first.”
No need for Crean to say another word. The rest of the basketball world is saying it for him. Within minutes, the coach received congratulatory text messages from Damon Bailey, Calbert Cheaney, Kent Benson, Randy Wittman, Dane Fife and a string of other former Bob Knight players with Final Four pedigrees. Bill Polian of the Indianapolis Colts and Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh, Crean’s brother-in-law, called with congratulations. One Indiana recruiting web site registered more than 1 million page views that day.
That reflected the percolating adrenaline but, more importantly, it was a sign of unity behind Crean from an Indiana old guard that has been fractured since Knight was fired in 2000.
“Cody Zeller signing with Indiana means two things,” said Dan Dakich, a former IU player and coach who now hosts a radio show in Indianapolis.
“It means they’re getting a really good player who fits the way Tom likes to play. He’s a really good defensive rebounder who’s a great pick-and-pop guy.
“But it also means that it’s OK for really good players to go to Indiana again. That’s important because there are a lot of really, really good players in the sophomore, freshman and eighth-grade classes in the state.
“For every coach, there’s usually that one guy you just have to get, the way Coach Knight had to get Quinn Buckner or Isiah Thomas. Cody Zeller was that kind of guy for Tom.”
Some of those really, really good in-state players have already told Crean that help is on the way. Forward Hanner Perea, a five-star, top-10 prospect, and guard Ron Patterson, a top-75 recruit, are orally committed with 7-footer Peter Jurkin in the 2012 class. Trey Lyles and James Blackmon Jr., a pair of top-25 freshmen, have also told Crean they are coming to Indiana.
“The hardest thing to do is get that first olive out of the jar,” said former football coach Jack Harbaugh, Crean’s father-in-law. “You get that first one and the rest come out a lot easier.”
Little has come easily at Indiana lately. The Hoosiers have won 16 of 62 games the last two seasons as Crean started cleansing the toxic residue of the Kelvin Sampson era, one that resulted in NCAA probation and a complete roster overhaul.
But the truth is that it hasn’t been absolutely cool to sign with Indiana for nearly two decades, including the last seven seasons of the Knight Era. Knight, the game’s winningest coach, won his last Big Ten title in 1993 and won four games in his last seven NCAA tournaments in Bloomington.
Eric Montross (North Carolina) and Jason Gardner (Arizona) were in-state guys who chose not to play for Knight, just as Mike Davis whiffed on Greg Oden and Mike Conley (Ohio State), Josh McRoberts (Duke) and Luke Harangody (Notre Dame).
Crean is rebuilding the roster — and the brand. He is preaching a commitment to defense, frenetic energy and team play.
Crean has three nice pieces in forward Christian Watford and guards Verdell Jones Jr. and Maurice Creek, although Creek will need time to regain the explosiveness in his surgically repaired left knee.
A year ago Indiana ranked 10th in the Big Ten in defensive field-goal percentage at 44.4 percent. Indiana’s first two opponents, Florida Gulf Coast and Wright State, have made only 33.3 percent of their shots. That’s the first stat to monitor.
But to get back to .500 — or beyond — this season, Indiana will need the NCAA to clear Guy-Marc Michel. He is a 7-foot-1 center and junior-college transfer whose experience playing with a club team in France is being examined.
“We’re all praying for Guy to get eligible,” said wing Victor Oladipo, one of Crean’s freshman. “But people are starting to believe that Indiana is changing and changing for the better. That’s what we all came here to do and that’s what we’re going to do.”