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BENNER: Tough year for IU basketball to make a comeback

November 7, 2009

The problem for IU men’s basketball is, of course, that the Hoosiers’ measuring stick is a conference stacked with more good teams than it’s had in years.

Yes, IU Coach Tom Crean’s Hoosiers are better. How could they not be when last season’s 6-25 mark (and 1-17 in the league) was merely the program’s worst in something like 94 years?

Thanks again, Kelvin Sampson … and those who hired him.

Grrrrrr.

But now that the Hoosiers have experienced the absolute depths—“we were in cement boots,” Crean said—it’s time to begin the rise toward the surface.

“There’s no question it’s going to be hard to move up,” conceded the irrepressible Crean, whose Hoosiers open the season Nov. 13 against Howard University at Assembly Hall. “But that’s not our focus right now. The focus is how much we can improve, and let’s see where that takes us.”

Unlike last year, when the cupboard was oh-so-bare, the Hoosiers do return their three top scorers: senior Devan Dumes (Decatur Central) and promising sophomores Verdell Jones III and Tom Pritchard. Crean’s first full recruiting class is full of potential, especially in Christian Watford and Maurice Creek, along with Hoosiers Derek Elston (Tipton) and Mr. Basketball Jordan Hulls (Bloomington South). Also joining the Hoosiers is Georgetown University transfer Jeremiah Rivers, son of Boston Celtics coach and former NBA great Glenn “Doc” Rivers.

But it remains a very young squad at a time when the Big Ten is stocked with veteran teams while the non-conference schedule poses the likes of the universities of Kentucky, Pittsburgh and Maryland.

During a recent Big Ten media gathering at Rosemont, Ill., Crean used the word “better” only about a hundred times. It is a relative term.

“We’re going to be better, I don’t think there’s any question about that,” he said. “How it transfers to wins, I don’t know. I love where our program is heading, but to think we’re on par with other teams in our league wouldn’t make any sense.”

Last year, the Hoosiers were so undermanned they became heroic underdogs to their fans. For opponents, however, it was an opportunity to lay a serious whuppin’ on what was once a national power.

“Open season on Indiana,” Crean said.

IU faithful eager for a return to the glory days are apt to give this season’s version a pass, too, as long as they see progress. And, yes, a few more victories.

“You can’t describe how great the fan base is at Indiana, how they supported us through everything that happened, how they bought into the fact that we’re all in it together,” Crean said. “The train wreck wasn’t their fault and it wasn’t our fault. It was just there and we had to deal with it.”

Dealing with it means not only recruiting better players, but changing a mind-set. His Hoosiers, Crean said, have to develop a work ethic, a year-round commitment, a level of toughness and leadership if they’re going to restore the brand that is “Indiana Basketball.”

“We don’t have the 24/7, 365-day work ethic totally there yet,” Crean said. “It’s got to be competitive every day. It’s built every day through competition. It’s accountability in June like it’s accountability in November. That’s how you get a program built. Right now it’s still coming.”

And who leads this team? Who wants the ball when a score is a must? Who makes the crucial defensive play?

“The real leadership comes out when you’re down four [points], two minutes to go, or you’re up four, two minutes to go,” Crean said. “That’s when you really know who [your leaders] are. Right now, leadership is far too much from the coaches. That’ll work to a degree, but it won’t push you over the top and get you to a championship level of performance.”

It’s nearly unanimous that Crean is the right man for the job. He has re-engaged virtually all the former players and has re-energized the fan base with his relentless passion and energy. Most important, he has begun to assemble the talent.

Yet at some point, the scoreboard has to validate the effort.

“Winning is such an incredible feeling,” Crean said. “That you play extremely hard, that you go out and give it everything you have, people really appreciate that. Now we want to go from a team that plays hard to a team that really can compete and believe it’s going to win.”•

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Benner is director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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