On April 1, 2008, Tom Crean inherited an Indiana University program in complete disarray. A year later, Crean and the Hoosiers hit rock bottom with a 6-25 season, the worst in history for a program with five national championships to its credit. So why do things seem so hopeful back home in Indiana?
Crean has been hailed as the savior of IU basketball. It has been a long and painful decline for the Hoosiers since 2002, when Mike Davis took an experienced squad of Bobby Knight recruits to the NCAA title game after the incredible upset of a loaded Duke team.
Since that day, Indiana hasn't advanced beyond the second round of the tournament. This is a school, let me remind you, that has historically dominated the Big Ten under Knight and Branch McCracken.
After suffering through the mediocrity of the Davis years and the disaster that Kelvin Sampson's regime became, Hoosier fans are desperate for a return to glory. There is no doubt that Indiana has some of the most devoted followers in the country.
Even this year, fans showed up in droves to watch a squad full of freshmen and juco retreads (oh, and Kyle Taber!) lose game after game to such traditional powers as Northeastern, Northwestern, and everyone in between. Even Lipscomb took down the Baby Hoosiers.
Can Crean resurrect this team? Personally, I am a believer.
The new coach's first recruiting class, granted, was not amazing. Mike Davis brought in guys like D.J. White and Bracey Wright, although some of his best commitments never made it to campus (I'm thinking of Atlanta's Josh Smith in particular). Kelvin Sampson made waves around the country when he convinced Eric Gordon to ditch Illinois in favor of his home state school.
Crean, in contrast, brought in players like Tom Pritchard, Verdell Jones, and Nick Williams. These are talented guys, but nobody expects them to end up in the NBA like White and Gordon.
However, the way that this young team played last year gives cause for hope. Where Davis and Sampson's teams seemed apathetic half the time (I remember one game in particular where Marshall Strickland was texting from the locker room while trailing at halftime at Northwestern), Crean's kids played hard all season long, and mostly showed improvement as the year passed.
Importantly, these guys will be spending four years wearing the cream and crimson. Gordon left after just one. Smith never made it to town.
Indiana fans really respond to hard work and dedication. The blue collar ethic of Crean resonates with people in the state, most of who still openly worship Bob Knight. His honesty (and he better be honest, as IU's NCAA monitors are on alert for even the tiniest slip) is crucial for a program that cannot afford any more Sampsonesque screwups.
Next year, Crean is bringing in a top 10 recruiting class. G Jordan Hulls just led his Bloomington South team to an undefeated season and an Indiana state championship. He will join highly regarded swingmen Christian Watford and Maurice Creek in a backcourt already loaded with rising sophomores Jones and Williams, as well as the team's leading scorer in Devan Dumes (who will be a senior).
Most important, though, is the incoming size for Indiana. Forwards Derek Elston, Bobby Capobianco, and Bawa Muniru will allow Williams to move back to his natural position at shooting guard (he has been playing the four for the size-deficient Hoosiers) and should get serious minutes right away.
Crean has already proved that he can get young guys to compete hard in the rough-and-tumble Big Ten. With this year's class seasoned and ready to win, the six new players will be stepping into a young but veteran organization.
Fan support remained high throughout this season, the worst in Indiana history. The Crean era already looks golden in comparison to the train wreck that was 2007.
Crean has proved that he can stay positive throughout tough times and motivate his players to compete hard. Next year, he will have at least twice as much talent to work with, and should continue to bring in good players year after year.
The expectation next year is of a competitive season and a team around .500, which is attainable. An NIT berth would be nice. After that, I think Crean will be ready for his grace period to end, and I expect that Indiana will return to the Big Dance in 2011 with a skilled and well-rounded team of sophomores and juniors.
After this difficult season, all that Indiana fans expect is steady improvement and a gradual return to the limelight of college basketball. Just as important, Hoosier nation expects a coach who will keep their program honest. Crean and his team look ready to grow into the giant shoes of Knight, McCracken, Isiah Thomas, and all the other legends who have played and coached in Bloomington.