By Todd Jones
Memories tempt us to be frozen in a snapshot of time, usually a treasured moment. Such a static allure is a spider web for Tom Crean. The Indiana basketball coach has too mobile of a mind to linger. He's got to move, a bluesman would sing, and that's forward. So there's irony in him trying to push his program to where it used to be.
Indiana's glorious past is its desired future. The Hoosiers hope to turn the season's stretch drive into 1987, when the irascible Bob Knight ruled at the peak of his powers, winning his third national championship, the school's fifth. A No. 1 ranking and 21-3 record suggests that Crean's five-year reclamation project is destined to produce a sixth title on an upcoming April night in Atlanta. The team's engine purrs with a couple of national player-of-the-year candidates in Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo. Their coach, of course, is driving hard and fast.
The pace accelerated in last season's breakthrough success. An upset of top-ranked Kentucky, the eventual national champion, in a raucous December home game trumpeted the return of the proud Hoosiers from an era of unprecedented pain. They ended up winning 27 games, after totaling just 28 in Crean's first three seasons, and crashed the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16. His resuscitation powers were hailed, and a monster awakened. Tradition-rich programs provide a sense of ownership to a fan base, especially when the state's name is striped across a jersey. In Indiana, the natives are ravenous to hang another banner. Heightened expectations have stalked the Hoosiers since they were ranked No. 1 in the preseason for the first time since 1993.
"The passion is great, but you can't let yourself get caught up in the free flow of the positive or the negative," Crean said. "Just deal with it. You stay busy."
Work seals him hermetically from the hosannas as well as the grumbling from the fringe. Some discontent briefly bubbled forth last week after a 74-72 loss at Illinois in which the Hoosiers blew a 10-point lead in the game's final four minutes. The meltdown spurned murmurs about Crean being out-coached and only a recruiter. Voices don't lack for 21st century platforms. Nor does Indiana's leader need criticism for a spur. Crean is, by nature, forever fretting about how to improve. He's a scrapper at heart. He was a benchwarmer on his high school basketball team in Mount Pleasant, Mich. He didn't play in college. His first coaching job was as a prep assistant. His resume includes a stint at Alma College. Crean crimped along the career climb, a heel hook here, a chest jam there. Kept moving up.
"Tom has never lost that fear of failure," said former college coach Fran Fraschilla, a groomsman in Crean's wedding. "He wakes up every day trying to figure out another way to get better so his program doesn't backslide."
The churning desire for improvement kept Crean sane during his first three seasons at Indiana. Those days were darker than a sewer line. The fallout from the program's implosion under his predecessor, Kelvin Sampson, stained the anointed savior with a 28-66 record. Although healed, the wounds remain fresh enough to keep Crean's push-forward mantra unchanged by the success of the past two years.
"We wouldn't be in this position if we were not taking every day for what it is when we weren't very good," Crean said. "The most boring phrase is: 'Stay in the process.' But that's what it is about. The moment you start jumping it and thinking you control the process, you're making a mistake. Teams do that, too. So much of this has to do with the attitude and the extra work you're willing to put in."
Crean's process is buffered by the like-minded approach of his two best players. Zeller and Oladipo couple their NBA-caliber talent with an insatiable desire to get better and infectious lack of ego. Each puts the team first, Zeller so much so he's been criticized for being too deferential at times. At some point it'll behoove the Hoosiers to settle on just who is The Man in crunch time before a tight March ballgame. Oladipo, a blast furnace of energy at guard, might emerge even though his 7-foot teammate is considered the top-five draft pick. For now, however, the duo is locked in step with Crean's persistent push onward, urging their fellow Hoosiers forward.
"We haven't scratched the surface of how good we can be," Oladipo said.
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Memories can turn our minds into mush. Everyone's chatting about your highlight dunk last month or sweet victory last season until loafing seems like an option. Potential for softness lurks throughout the biggest college sports empires, where teams are swaddled in adulation. Such is the vibe in Indiana, a state where basketball is tinted in religious tones, where dream-beckoning rims hang on barn silos, and where the Hoosiers' return to prominence has turned Assembly Hall into a powder keg of excitement.
"The fans who stayed with the program in its darkest days, and who have gone through it, truly appreciate the fact that IU is winning again and back on the national stage," said Don Fischer, in his 40th year as Indiana's radio broadcaster.
Zeller seems immune to the hysteria. He has experienced idolatry since leading Washington High School to three Indiana state championships. The small-town hero was hailed for staying home at Crean's behest, feted for leading last year's resurrection campaign as a freshman, and lauded for spurning the NBA to return this season. Yet his varied skills -- a scoring touch inside and out as well as the ability to run the floor like few other big men -- come cloaked in a regular-guy demeanor. Zeller shrugs at criticism, choosing to instead concentrate on being consistent with his practice habits, which are lauded by Crean. The sophomore greets praise with self-deprecation.
"He handles all the hype and commotion better than anybody I know," Oladipo said.
Lately, the torrent of attention has turned Oladipo's way. The junior from Maryland is arguably the nation's most improved player, upping his shooting percentage from 47.1 percent last season to 64.5 percent and his three-point shooting percentage from 20.5 to 53.8. He's done so while remaining a buzzing terror on defense for opposing top scorers. Like Zeller, however, Oladipo brushes aside talk of possible individual honors. He's quick to rattle of his own areas in need of improvement while also mentioning a greater desire for broader team accomplishments.
"I remember where I came from," said Oladipo, rated just 144th in his recruiting class coming out of high school by Rivals.com. "It's nice that people think of me [as a national player of the year candidate], but I don't think of myself like that. I just want to win ballgames. I'm just worried about my team winning, and winning at a high level."
The grounded and selfless attitude of Indiana's stars embodies prime characteristics that Crean sought in recruits when he initially faced digging out of Sampson's rubble. A slew of player defections before the 2008-09 season left Crean with a roster that included eight walk-on players his first year. A 6-25 horror show followed that saw the Hoosiers lose 17 of 18 Big Ten games. Better players were in dire need, no doubt. Talent, however, wasn't going to be the only solution. Crean needed something more in recruits than mere skill.
"Did they win?" Crean said. "Not just did they win part of the year, but did they win year-round? One of the most under-valued things in recruiting is: Are they winning all year-round? Do they have athletic upside? Do they have intelligence upside? And what is their character like? Can they keep getting better? I would put work ethic in there. If they have those attributes, then you have a real chance to get better, and that's what we were looking for."
He found the traits in Oladipo and classmate Will Sheehey. Both immediately filled the gym with much-needed desire and kept the flame burning through their 12-20 freshman season two years ago. Their will matched that of senior guard Jordan Hulls, a Bloomington, Ind., native who never let up during his own freshman nightmare of a 10-21 record in Crean's second year. The trio, along with senior forward Christian Watford, set a proper foundational tone and served as the cavalry until Zeller arrived.
"Their work ethic kept everybody's hopes up," said Dan Dakich, a former Indiana player and assistant coach under Knight. "Even though they were losing, they were connecting with everybody. People saw that they were working hard. Tom has come in and done a great job of not only winning, obviously, but in getting his team to play in a way, act in a manner, and go to class in fashion that Indiana's people appreciate."
To the victor goes the bully pulpit, and from there it is often preached how a certain program does things the right way. So Indiana's accomplishments during Knight's 29 years as coach are lacquered with a fondness that goes beyond the Hall of Famer winning national titles in 1976, '81 and '87. His teams were known as scrappy, hard working and basketball savvy. Players graduated, stayed out of trouble. Knight kept the Hoosiers free from the NCAA jailhouse. He was loyal and honest. All those positives were used by his supporters as a shield to excuse his often ill-tempered, churlish and bullying behavior. Winning provides a trump card to even a boor.
Yet after Knight was gone, unceremoniously fired in 2000 for misbehavior, winning wasn't enough to excuse what was going on in Sampson's program. The Hoosiers were 22-4 when he resigned under pressure in early February 2008 when the NCAA hounds were hot on his heels. Mutiny erupted. Players quit or were run off. Several of them were failing classes. Even rumors of drug use dogged the team, which lost four of its last five games, including a first-round NCAA defeat to Arkansas. The process had been aborted in Bloomington. Scandal ruled.
"It was a mess," said Dakich, who finished the season as interim coach after Sampson's resignation. "There was no connection between the players and the students and fans because of how the players were acting. We needed to have guys in there who respected not only Indiana but how every major college basketball program is run."
Crean came in from Marquette, where he had averaged 21 wins in nine years, and reached the 2003 Final Four with Dwyane Wade. Dakich told him the true extent of the awaiting turmoil. His jaw dropped. Then the Hoosiers were hit with three years of NCAA probation on top of the school's self-imposed punishment because of its first major rules violations since 1960, committed by Sampson and his staff. Gloom spread. Crean kept working. He buzzed around the state, shepherding former players and fans back into the fold with energy and vision. He talked about having to go through the process even as losses piled up in historic fashion. A Midwestern native, he knew Indiana's tradition could still lure talent by pounding the recruiting trail. Fans awarded him with patience, albeit thin at times during the unexpected struggles of year three. They saw promise in Zeller and other recruits such as Kevin "Yogi" Ferrell, another Indiana product now starting as a freshman point guard. They saw improvement in matriculating players. And now they see an entertaining and explosive offensive team that remains in tune with where it wants to be because of where it has been.
"We're more mature," Oladipo said. "We know what to expect. We've been through the fire and back. We expect a lot out of each other."
Crean is privy to those self-imposed expectations during daily practice. His players have stayed true to the process even while piling up 48 victories in the past couple of seasons.
"They have a lot of interest in taking care of unfinished business," the coach said. "There's a fine line between memory and the future. The future is: Are we going to be better today and better tomorrow, and are we going to be locked into what made us better? They're not going to get a lot stronger physically, but they get better mentally. That's what really continues to separate us."
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Memory is seductive in its selective nature. Nobody says the bad old days. The past is often filtered into good light, as in the way Knight's tenure is recalled by many in Indiana. Easily forgotten is the fact that his final few years with the Hoosiers were dreary slogs. Four of his last six teams lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Debate raged about the game passing by the stubborn genius and his motion offense. Players were being dismissed, their reputations trashed by loyalists. Knight's anger and combativeness led to a zero-tolerance edict. It ended 13 years ago in ugly fashion, with Indiana president Myles Brand being burned in effigy on his own lawn, and the fired Knight using a bullhorn to thank a crowd of students for their support.
Those were joyless days. Feelings didn't improve much even when Mike Davis led the Hoosiers to the 2002 national title game in his second season as Knight's replacement. Davis couldn't bind a fractured fan base. Sampson exasperated the fault lines. Crean kept losing. All the fun had been squeezed out of Indiana basketball, which is why an 81-68 win at Ohio State on Sunday seemed a revelation to any eyes still only fixated on the good old days. The Hoosiers appeared familiar. They wore their usual candy-striped warm-up pants before the game, their jerseys sans individual names. Yet they played with effervescence, sharing the ball on offense with a social worker's heart. They shot 53 percent against a defense that hadn't allowed any of its previous 22 opponents to make half its shots. Zeller, Oladipo and Watford each scored at least 20 points. Indiana looked as if it was having fun, and afterward, its coach beamed.
"It's one thing to talk about it as a coach," Crean said. "It's another thing to see it on film. It's a whole other thing when they absorb it. They got it."
Crean wasn't talking about the win -- Indiana's first over a top-10 opponent on the road since 2000 -- as much as the two practices leading up to it. Three days earlier was the flop at Illinois, triggering angst in hoops-mad Hoosier-land. A buzzer-beating road loss in the nation's toughest conference shouldn't ring too many alarm bells, but questions swirled around Indiana as it prepared for a trip to Columbus. How would the Hoosiers respond? Could they finally win a signature road game? There was even talk of the Ohio State game being a must-win.
Indiana's team, however, closed ranks and went to work after the Illinois debacle.
"We have older guys, guys who have been through it," Zeller said. "Now being through it, knowing what success is like, we know what we have to do to remain one of those teams."
Crean didn't have to implore the troops. They immersed themselves in his beloved process.
"They were really disappointed [at Illinois]," he said, "and instead of that dissolving into a woe-is-me mentality, it really did trigger how to get better. There was a different level of a sense of urgency. They were really locked in."
For Crean, the past is all about how you use it to benefit the future. His players took a bitter memory and quickly figured out how it could help them move forward. So while the end product at Ohio State -- a victory so resounding it kept the Hoosiers top-ranked in this week's poll despite losing at Illinois -- pleased the boss, it was the process leading up to that win that left Crean grinning. He looked as if he knew a secret, as if aware deep down that his team has the necessary mental toughness to go with its championship-caliber skill. Nothing is certain in the looming crucible, as already displayed nation-wide in this wild parity-saturated season. The Hoosiers, however, appear headed in the right direction. They are intent on making their own memories in March.
"We want to be the last team standing," Oladipo said.
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Todd Jones is a senior reporter for The Columbus Dispatch.