Indiana basketball revival under way
Tom Crean knows how far the Indiana program has already come.
He sees it every day at practice with the increased competition for playing time and now fans are starting to see the fruits, too.
Three years after inheriting a train wreck of a program, Crean finally has the Hoosiers playing more like, well, the Hoosiers people expect.
''They had a mess there,'' recruit Cody Zeller said Wednesday night. ''But, you know, it's always been a great program.''
Few schools can match Indiana's tradition, which includes five national titles, the last undefeated season in Division I men's basketball, the winningest coach in men's history and a parade of first-round draft picks.
But when he came to Bloomington, Crean inherited a team that had only two returning players, both walk-ons, and a school that saw it's squeaky-clean image suddenly tarnished by the first major NCAA infractions case against it in nearly half a century. There were allegations of players using drugs and documented cases of players regularly skipping classes.
Indiana has not recovered completely, but Crean is clearly making progress.
For the first time since 2002, Indiana started 6-0 - the longest winning streak of the Crean era. The Hoosiers have now won eight straight home games, another best under Crean, and take a 7-1 record into Saturday's game at No. 17 Kentucky.
What really excites Indiana fans is Crean's ability to win over recruits.
''I just know what Indiana is all about,'' talented shooting guard Maurice Creek said, explaining his decision to leave the East Coast for the Midwest. ''I think to come in and help rebuild this thing, that's what it's all about.''
Until last month, Crean's biggest wins had come with out-of-state players like Creek, from Maryland; guard Verdell Jones, from Illinois; and small forward Christian Watford, from Alabama.
The exceptions were Jordan Hulls, an overlooked Bloomington native who won the state's Mr. Basketball Award in 2009, and Derek Elston. Both have played key roles in the resurgence, and that has helped Crean rebuild Indiana's recruiting presence in the talent-rich State.
Last month, Indiana won the year's biggest in-state prize in getting Zeller. And once Indiana emerged as the favorite for Zeller, well, the parade to Bloomington started in earnest.
Highly touted forward Hanner Perea, who plays at a prep school in LaPorte, Ind., verbally committed to the Hoosiers in late October. Two weeks after Zeller's announcement, highly rated Indianapolis Park Tudor point guard Kevin Ferrell said he would play at Indiana. They'll form the nucleus of Crean's 2012 recruiting class.
Indianapolis Cathedral forward Collin Hartman and Warren Central forward Devin Davis Jr. are already locked up for 2013, and, Indianapolis Tech forward Trey Lyles and Fort Wayne Luers shooting guard James Blackmon Jr., have already committed for 2014.
All of this for a school that hasn't been to a postseason tournament since 2008 and has two other in-state programs getting more attention - No. 19 Purdue and defending national runner-up Butler.
Part of Crean's struggle was reminding players of exactly what the Indiana tradition is. Despite having the third-most national titles and the second most Big Ten crowns (20), the Hoosiers have reached only two Final Fours since 1992 and haven't won an outright league title since 1993.
Zeller said that has affected how recruits view Indiana.
''They remember 2002,'' Zeller said, referring to the Hoosiers' last appearance in the NCAA title game. ''But I think they remember more about the current stuff because it's fresh in their mind and when they think of Indiana over the last few years, they think of it as a mess.''
So what has changed at Indiana?
''Certainly Cook Hall is a big deal,'' Crean said, referring to the school's new state-of-the-art practice facility. ''But there are so many things you can sell at the university. The bottom line is that people are seeing the proof and believe that the program is going to get back to where we want to see it.''
Put Zeller in that camp.
This year's Mr. Basketball favorite said that while he's impressed with Crean and the facilities in Bloomington, he made his choice based on the progression he's seen on and off the court.
''There were coaches and players and they had a lot of things going on behind the scenes, it was just a mess,'' Zeller said. ''Now they've got it going in the right direction.''
Crean won just six games in his first season, 2008-09. Last year, he won 10 - half of what Hoosiers fans expect in a mediocre season. Even as attendance figures continued to put Indiana among the national leaders, some season-ticket holders began questioning publicly whether Crean was the right man for the job.
Those critics have now vanished.
Just one month into the season, the Hoosiers have won nearly half as many games as they did in Crean's first two seasons combined. Yes, they are piling up victories against a soft schedule, and that's by design because Crean understands that his job is nowhere close to finished.
''I think they're gaining confidence,'' he said. ''There's more competition now, and there's a real like for one another, which I think came out in our recruiting. And they are getting better, but it's a long, long season.''
And a long, long rebuilding project for everyone involved.