ROSEMONT, Ill. – Tom Crean didn't really understand what he was getting into when he took the Indiana job four years ago.
Now, the mess is gone. Just look at the Hoosiers.
They are the top team in the Big Ten and Cody Zeller is the Preseason Player of the Year, according to a vote by conference media, results that were hardly surprising given their jump last season.
All the Hoosiers did was orchestrate a 15 1/2 -game turnaround that matched the biggest in Big Ten history, going 27-9 on the way to the Sweet 16.
It's fair to say they've come a long way since Crean took over for Kelvin Sampson in the wake of the phone-call scandal that gutted the program.
"We had hit rock bottom," he said Thursday at Big Ten media day. "We had all kinds of issues that were inside the program. You don't take the job at Indiana thinking you're going to deal with what we were dealing with, but we did. And we weren't going to leave. That wasn't an option."
Crean said he actually had a chance to leave after his first season at Indiana, a 6-25 nightmare in 2008-09 that included a 1-17 conference record, and he would have earned what he was making in his previous job at Marquette. It took him "about 10 seconds" to say no.
Now, the Hoosiers are back on top in a conference that appears to be loaded.
Michigan and Ohio State were picked to finish second and third after sharing the regular-season title with Michigan State last season, and the way Crean sees it, those three are the teams to beat until someone unseats them.
The Hoosiers have as good a chance as any, with the 6-foot-11 Zeller back after averaging 15.6 points and 6.6 rebounds as a freshman. He was a unanimous pick for the preseason all-conference team, with Michigan's Trey Burke, Ohio State's Aaron Craft and Deshaun Thomas, and Penn State's Tim Frazier also making it.
"The target of being an Indiana Hoosier has never changed," Crean said. "Indiana is synonymous throughout the country for being known for a lot of things in basketball. It was always a big, big game. It was always a big deal when you were playing Indiana or Indiana was coming to town. And I think that hasn't changed. Will it grow some? Maybe. But I think the bottom line is a year ago, when there really weren't those outside voices talking in a totally positive light where the team was at, that didn't phase them. They continued to work."
The Hoosiers are facing no easy task.
Michigan is right there. So is Ohio State, even if its best player (Jared Sullinger) and one of its all-time leading scorers (William Buford) are gone after a Final Four run.
The Buckeyes still have three starters back. And Michigan State coach Tom Izzo likes his team's chances even though Draymond Green is gone.
"We have a chance to put together a pretty good team, and unfortunately it's in a tough conference this year and that's going to make a difference," Izzo said.
Strength of the conference was a big theme on Thursday, only this year it seemed like something more than coach-speak. There seems to be some weight to it.
"We're going to have to back it up," said Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, whose team is coming off a 26-win season and Sweet 16 run. "We're going to have to play well, that's for sure. There are certain teams now in our league that have that 'X' mark on their back, but that's good. I think that's good, that quality competition, that interest, the outside interest of people saying, "Well, we think this team is pretty good." This team is pretty good. That's OK, that's great for the league."
For Indiana, it's been a tough climb back toward the top. The Hoosiers won just 10 games in Crean's second season and 12 in his third, before turning it around a year ago. Zeller's arrival was the extra kick the program needed.
"It's pretty crazy to think about how far we've come," senior Jordan Hulls said. "It speaks volumes of how Coach Crean and his staff have really instilled their lives into getting Indiana basketball back to where people are used to seeing it. Being part of the losing seasons and then now, last year having a pretty good year and then expectations for this year, it's pretty cool to be a part of that."