Last week, I attended a press conference that pumped the upcoming Hartford Hall of Fame Showcase at Lucas Oil Stadium Dec. 6.
The Showcase will feature Indiana University versus Gonzaga University in one game, the University of Notre Dame against Ohio State University in the other.
Name wise, it's a stellar lineup befitting the occasion: the first basketball games to take place in LOS. It's safe to predict they will be the first of many. At the very least, an NCAA Men's regional will take place there next March. The Men's Final Four follows in 2010, and the Women's Final Four in 2011.
After the press conference, emceed by Clark Kellogg and featuring the four coaches-IU's Tom Crean, Notre Dame's Mike Brey, Ohio State's Thad Matta and Gonzaga's Mark Few (by phone)-there was a golf tournament at Brickyard Crossing for which organizers assembled quite the collection of stars. Rick Barry, George Gervin, Sam Jones, Bailey Howell, Calvin Murphy and C.M. Newton were among the basketball luminaries. Locally, former Pacers Derrick McKey and Sam Perkins were on hand. So were Gene Keady and Bobby Plump.
But the small gaggle of media assembled principally wanted to talk with one guy: Crean. On Oct. 17 in Assembly Hall, Indiana's version of Midnight Madness takes place, as if there hasn't been enough insanity around the IU program already.
Who would have thought last Oct. 17 that the institution of IU basketball would have unraveled so completely; that, a year later, Kelvin Sampson would be in Milwaukee-but with the NBA Bucks-and Tom Crean, then the Marquette University coach, wouldn't; that IU's incoming roster for this year would include only two veterans-both former walk-ons-who totaled all of 30 points between them last season.
And any day now, the NCAA's Committee on Infractions will tip the scales of justice and only then will we know if Indiana's pre-emptive, self-imposed punishment will be enough to offset the sins of Sampson.
What a mess. But then there is Crean, broom and dustpan in hand. Help is on the way, but a year from now when a recruiting class rated among the nation's top five arrives.
In the meantime, there is a season to be played. I asked Crean what he hoped to accomplish by the end of it.
"I think we're really trying to stay focused on improvement," he responded. "We've got to be able to show our fans, ourselves and our team that progress is being made. You've never covered anything like this and I've certainly never been a part of anything like this where it's a brand new team, where the stakes are as high as they are, where you're in the Big Ten conference, when you're at a program like Indiana. I think if [we] can measure consistent improvement throughout the year, that would be pretty successful."
Crean made it clear he believes the NCAA should rule that IU has already done enough-recruiting and scholarship restrictions-to pay for Sampson's transgressions, although hanging heavily in the air is the ominous "failure to monitor" allegation.
Nonetheless, Crean said he will be "shocked" if the NCAA adds more penalties.
"We've been hit extremely hard," he said. "I hope the people who are making the decisions are looking at how much of a detriment this has been. You can't look at it and say, 'Well, they've had this ranked player that's going to sign,'or, 'This recruiting class has been ranked that way.' That's a tribute to what Indiana's all about over the long haul. That's a tribute to how hard the coaches have worked. That's a tribute to the fans that have made Assembly Hall what it is. It's not because of the restrictions. Those have hurt us moving forward.
"There's been a serious price paid."
Since taking the job, Crean has swept across the state, spreading Terry Hoeppnerlike enthusiasm and passion. He's tried to rebuild the torched bridges to the Bob Knight-era players and even Knight himself.
Crean also has been able to maintain his sense of humor-better to laugh about it than cry and, besides, the size of those checks would put a smile on anyone's face. And it's not like he's trying to keep the ship from sinking. His task is to raise it off the ocean floor.
At the very least, the athletic department may receive a short-term financial boost from program sales. Who are these guys? Seven true freshmen. A red-shirt freshman. Three junior college imports. A transfer. And those holdovers, Kyle Taber (who won't be back from injury until late next month) and Brett Finkelmeier.
At least they'll still be wearing those candy-striped pants.
Benner is associate 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.