What if I told you, it could’ve been much worse? Would you believe me?
Bob Knight’s last game at Indiana was a 77-57 loss to 11th seeded Pepperdine. After the tumultuous tenure of Mike Davis, Indiana hired Kelvin Sampson, an embattled coach from Oklahoma who got the Sooners placed on three years probation. Yet there Indiana was, in the top 25 again and led by star Eric Gordon and senior D.J. White, prepped up for a deep run in March in the 2007-2008 season.
Now if you answered yes to the first question, you were right. Following Sampson from Oklahoma, came with him his unethical recruiting background. In February of 2008, the NCAA officially informed Indiana University of major violations committed by Kelvin Sampson. On February 23rd, Sampson resigned his position as head basketball coach at Indiana University.
In late February of that year, Marquette men’s basketball coach Tom Crean, fresh off a victory at Villanova to improve to 21-6, likely turned on ESPN. Crean likely saw the news of Kelvin Sampson and his resignation from Indiana following recruiting violations. Crean wouldn’t admit it publicly, but it was a job that intruiged him and likely many other available coaches, even though the rebuilding process would be tough. But Crean had more important things on his mind, namely his team’s run in March.
For Indiana, the Hoosiers now needed a coach. A 10-member search committee was put together to find the Hoosiers next coach, and names such as Tony Bennett and Sean Miller were popping up all over Bloomington as teams began to lose in the NCAA Tournament. Indiana had already exited the Big Dance, losing 4 of their last 5 to end a disappointing season which was also Eric Gordon’s first and last in Bloomington.
Meanwhile, Marquette head coach Tom Crean had just guided the Golden Eagles back to the NCAA Tournament. After a strong first round win over Kentucky, Marquette dropped an 82-81 overtime game to Stanford, ending Crean’s 9th year at the school. Since the 2003 Final Four appearance, Crean hadn’t created many waves for the Golden Eagles in the Big East and perhaps was seeking a new challenge. He’d get that and much more just over a week later, on April Fools Day.
When Tom Crean accepted the Indiana job on that day in April, he was quickly seen as the right guy for a troubling situation. Crean told Indiana that “this is gonna take some time,” amidst the worst scandal in Indiana basketball history.
In the coming months Crean would lose Eric Gordon and D.J. White to the NBA Draft, and dismiss two more of his players, all on top of three members choosing to transfer. Star freshman Devin Ebanks would leave for West Virginia and the only returning player would be oft used forward Kyle Taber. Athletic Director Rick Greenspan announced he was stepping down and the future for Indiana didn’t look bright. But none of that seemed to matter when you listened to Tom Crean talk.
Pat Forde, a former ESPN columnist and now Yahoo Sports writer, wrote on April Fools day, “Athletic director Rick Greenspan, his credibility facing an 0-2 count, suddenly got one grooved down the middle and knocked it out.”
Indiana had hired Tom Crean, and the excitement was back. Over the next two years, nobody could have imagined it would continue to get, you guessed it, worse. In Crean’s first year, Indiana went 6-25 and didn’t win a game in the Big Ten until a 68-60 victory over Iowa on February 4th. It was the worst year in Indiana basketball history. The following year didn’t get much better as IU went 10-21, finishing with a disappointing 73-58 loss to Northwestern.
Indiana fans knew it would take time to rebuild the program, but they didn’t expect it to be this bad. 16 wins over two years? The Hoosiers were in unprecedented territory and nobody was taking it easy on them. What made things worse is that Purdue was in the top 10 during both wins during Crean’s second season.
Year three came around and Indiana went 12-20, another disappointing year in which boosters would finally begin to be a little antsy over Tom Crean and his rebuilding process. Indiana began the year 9-2, and had a relatively simple path to the Big Ten opener against Penn State. Yet the Hoosiers squandered opportunities against Northern Iowa, Colorado and Penn State.
As Crean’s teams struggled in the regular season, Crean and his staff seemed to have very little problem on the recruiting trail. The 2008 class wasn’t national respected, but it included 7 players, 6 of which were 3-star recruits. In 2009, three four-star recruits enrolled at Indiana, including Christian Watford and the following year, two players which are very familiar to Indiana this year, Will Sheehey and Victor Oladipo, came to town. The main piece however came in 2011when five-star All-American Cody Zeller enrolled from nearby Washington, IN.
The story from there on out is well known throughout the college basketball world. You can simply use the words, “Zeller. Watford. Kentucky. Ohio State. Michigan State. And VCU,” simply as bookmarks of sort in the final year of rebuilding. Cody Zeller became the savior that the program expected him to be, and Indiana made the Sweet Sixteen last season. Following their loss to eventual champion Kentucky, John Calipari said, “If you told me the team we're playing today, Indiana, was going to score 90 points and shoot 52 percent from the floor, I was going to have to tell you, 'Wow, it's been a nice season. Hate to end it that way, but it's been a nice season.”
At Hoosier Hysteria, a quote from Tom Crean showed on the big screen. It read, “It took a nation, to rebuild a program.” Crean had delivered on his promise from four years earlier. He asked for time from a program that didn’t know how to give it, from a program that was stunned by the events leading up to Kelvin Sampson’s departure. But all it took was that first Tom Crean press conference, and Hoosier Nation was sold.
On Sunday night, with a little help from our friends from the North and Michigan, Indiana clinched at least a share of its first Big Ten title since 2002. With a win over Ohio State tonight, the Hoosiers can clinch their first out right title since 1993.
The story is amazing isn’t it? It was one that everybody loved to see happen unless of course you bleed Indiana red. There’s an old German word, Schadenfreude, from the German words Schaden and Freude which mean damage and joy. It means to take a hateful and spiteful look and delight towards the misfortune of others.
The college basketball world watched, as Indiana basketball, royalty in the basketball world, struggled to 6 win and 10 win seasons, much the same way fans are enjoying watching Kentucky play this year. There was no design, no guide or how to for the situation Tom Crean found himself in. But nearly five years later, Crean finds himself in position to bring the first National Championship to Bloomington since 1987.
It took a nation, it took time. And man, wasn’t it worth it?