To the brink of death and back: Indiana hoops is relevant again

During Bloomington's darkest days, and I'm 7 black, Cody Zeller would have been a Boilermaker or a Wolverine or joined his older brother Tyler in Chapel Hill.

Really, the Washington, Indiana born-and-bred would have been anything but a homegrown Hoosier. Former head coach Kelvin Sampson was supposed to rekindle the golden Bob Knight era from Knight's predecessor, Mike Davis, who, in retrospect, fit IU far more than Sampson. Sampson's laundry list of NCAA infractions set the Hoosiers back several years on the recruiting and branding front, labeling the once perennially proud basketball program "toxic."

Indiana needed an artist to remold its image, a salesmen to remarket its brand, a leader of men to bring the trust back to the Hoosier State's peach basket playgrounds, where Knight used to pluck Mr. Basketballs off neighboring fruit trees.

Enter Tom Crean, a high-energy, high-discipline, tireless worker who left a program he had built at Marquette to tackle the challenge of rebuilding Indiana's name. He cleaned house, leaving one returning scholarship player in wake and bringing in a patchwork recruiting class that served as able bodies above anything else. The result was a school-worst 6-25 season in 2008-09.

Yet, Bloomington couldn't be rebuilt in a day. Crean was a coach who related to high school stars and had built his Marquette program on stout recruiting in the Midwest. This was, after all, the man who convinced Dwyane Wade to play college basketball in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He signed four top 100 recruits the for 2009-10, and the Hoosiers showed modest improvement with a 10-21 record. His team beat two ranked opponents in a seven-day span last season, showed marked competitive progress, yet took a late-season step back with nine straight defeats to finish 12-20.

Wins and losses weren't, however, indicators of the program's growth. He had infused the roster with talent and energy, all the while working to restore the buzz from the farmlands to the city streets. He just needed one break, and he received it in the form of the five-star recruit Zeller, the highest ranking "get" since the Sampson era. It was a recruit Indiana wouldn't have dreamed of landing four years earlier, but it was a strong sign of a corner turned with the worst further in the rearview mirror by the day. Zeller has lived up to the hype, averaging a team-best 15.3 points and 7.4 rebounds per game through a perfect start.

Nice victories over Butler and at North Carolina State showed progress, but the shining moment of the Crean reclamation project occurred on December 10 in a raucous Assembly Hall, when Christian Watford's buzzer-beating three gave Indiana a 73-72 victory over top-ranked Kentucky.

In the mass hysteria, the best reaction came from Crean; an extended exhale and a steely, resolved stare of expectation. Victories like the one over the Wildcats and the following victory over Notre Dame (a classic trap game for a team that didn't truly believe) used to be the norm in Bloomington during the era of the General, Scott May, Isaiah and Steve Alford. And they will soon be again thanks to Crean and a program he has rebuilt from the brink of death.


1. The aftermath of the Cincinnati-Xavier brawl finally moved away from sound bites, tears, apologies and embarrassment to the basketball court, where Oral Roberts blasted the shorthanded Musketeers, 64-42. Xavier played without its two best players, point guard Tu Holloway and shooting guard Mark Lyons, as well as a third starter, freshman forward Dez Wells. The trio accounts for 40 percent of the Musketeers' points. The victory won't boost Oral Roberts' NCAA at-large chances, with missed opportunities already against West Virginia and Gonzaga.

2. Among the remaining unbeatens is Louisville, which has suddenly found its shooting touch in three straight games over 90 points. After a November of ugly victories, the Cardinals have beaten Vanderbilt and Memphis through the first half of December, thanks in large part to their veteran guard tandem of Kyle Kuric (12.7 points per game) and Peyton Siva (10.6 points per game).

3. The most unexpected unbeaten is Murray State, a veteran group with just three freshmen on the roster and a collection of juniors doing the heavy lifting. Isaiah Cannon plays like he was shot out of one, and it helps that the Racers have a prominent big man who can run the floor in senior Ivan Aska, who is averaging 13 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. Murray State has already slayed two respectable Conference USA stalwarts (UAB and Southern Mississippi) and Memphis, victories that will prove beneficial come NCAA Tournament time.

4. Florida head coach Billy Donovan signed a five-year contract extension on Friday, a deal that will keep him in Gainesville through the 2015-2016 season. Donovan has amassed 368 victories to go along with two national championships and a .711 winning percentage, the second-best all-time mark for an SEC coach through his first 500 games. The Gators are off to a 9-2 start, which includes an impressive 84-64 thumping of Texas A&M over the weekend.

5. Bravo to the NCAA, which granted the nation's only deaf Division I men's basketball player, Cal State Northridge forward Michael Lizarraga, a waiver to play the final 20 games of the season. Lizarraga averages 5.9 points and 4.2 rebounds per game, and had hoped the NCAA would allow him another year because he only played 35 minutes and seven games as a freshman.


1. Syracuse (11-0): In watching Saturday's victory at North Carolina State, I marveled at the Orange's depth. Head coach Jim Boeheim has always recruited length to best suit his match-up zone, but Syracuse's roster construction top to bottom is what stands out through the season's first two months.

2. Ohio State (10-1): The popular notion is to levy no punishment for the nine-point loss at Kansas without Jared Sullinger, but after the big man went down at South Carolina, I question his ability to stay completely healthy the rest of the way. Without him, Ohio State is still good, just not the best team in the land.

3. Louisville (10-0): This team isn't as talented as the two just below it, but the Cardinals seem comfortable playing fast or slow, giving them adaptability to countless matchups later in the season. Kuric and Siva can hang in transition, but head coach Rick Pitino's team defense makes games in the 50s manageable.

4. Kentucky (9-1): Terrence Jones has to play better than he has to date. The preseason All-American in many outlets (including this one) was a non-factor and spent most of crunch time on the bench against Indiana, then dislocated a finger on his left hand against Chattanooga. He's shied away from contact and been easily flustered through the season's first two months.

5. North Carolina (9-2): A dangerous game sandwiched between finals and winter break comes Wednesday night versus Texas. North Carolina received a solid contribution from freshmen James McAdoo (season-best 14 points) against Nicholls State, but head coach Roy Williams wasn't happy with the overall effort. "We weren't focused, we weren't ready to play." The Heels' occasional lapse in interest is worrisome.

6. Duke (10-1): Mason Plumlee has steadily improved through a challenging November-December schedule that has included victories over Michigan State, Tennessee, Davidson, Michigan, Kansas and Washington. However, while the big man is averaging a double-double (12.5 points and 10 rebounds per game), he must increase his 38 percent number from the foul line.

7. Baylor (9-0): The Bears are below the ACC bluebloods because the victory last Saturday at BYU was their best win to date. However, the competition quickly rises during the holiday season with games against Saint Mary's, West Virginia, Mississippi State and the conference opener the day after New Year's against Texas A&M.

8. Missouri (11-0): The old-fashioned border war against Illinois comes Thursday, and the Illini will still be smarting from a weekend setback against UNLV and Monday's narrow escape against Cornell. Last year's game featured an eyebrow-raising flagrant foul call I lambasted in this space. Missouri ranks second nationally in points per game, 17th in assists per game and second in field goal percentage, but still needs to find a consistent rebounding presence, sitting 166th nationally in rebounds per contest.

9. Connecticut (9-1): All of the Big East media attention has resided in Syracuse (both on and off the court), leaving the defending national champs under the radar, which is fine with the ever-improving Huskies, who received a season-best 24 points from freshman star Andre Drummond in a 77-40 thumping of Holy Cross.

10. Xavier (8-1): Sunday's loss to Oral Roberts solely rests on the irresponsibility of the Xavier student-athletes, but big picture, I can't punish the Musketeers much for the shell they trotted out over the weekend.

11. Florida (8-2): The Gators are rebounding more efficiently than I ever thought possible, and they are finding ways to score inside the arch. A competitive loss to Syracuse and victories over Arizona and Texas A&M in the last three weeks moves a team I was pretty low on into the Fine 15.

12. Indiana (10-0): I'm not suggesting this is smoke and mirrors, but we won't know Indiana's staying power until we see how it handles a late December-early January slate that includes a visit to Michigan State and home dates with Ohio State and Michigan.

13. Mississippi State (11-1): The classic underachievers aren't anymore, winning games they should, pulling out trap games and playing fundamental basketball even with a December 28th showdown versus Baylor in the back of their minds.

14. Marquette (10-1): On the flip side, the overachievers finally hit a wall, losing on Monday night to LSU. Marquette can win with Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom doing the heavy lifting, but in Monday's loss, the rest of the team made just 8-of-30 shots.

15. Murray State (12-0): Welcome to the race! As Murray State enters conference play, From the End of the Bench now attempts to predict its first setback. Circle the calendar for January 18th, when the 18-0 Racers will fall at Morehead State.