This week ESPN.com is turning its attention to a group of teams you usually don't hear too much about. We're looking at the programs that finished last in their respective conferences last year. And with all due respect to the likes of Iowa State, LSU, and DePaul, I think it's fair to say that one of these programs is not like the others. Specifically, one of these programs has five national championships to its name.
That team is Indiana. In most arenas, a team's championship banners are relegated to the relatively dim recesses of the rafters. But at the uniquely rectangular Assembly Hall in Bloomington, the Hoosiers' five national championship banners are on prominent display. The program's illustrious past has made Indiana's recent struggles all the more striking. In Tom Crean's three seasons at the helm, IU has posted an 8-46 record in Big Ten play.
Hoosier fans are well aware of what's taken place over the last three years, goodness knows, but at least now they have a two-word answer: Cody Zeller. The 6-10 McDonald's All-American from Washington, Indiana, will arrive on campus in Bloomington this fall as easily the highest rated IU recruit since Eric Gordon. Nor does Zeller have to be a one-man savior. He'll join Maurice Creek, Christian Watford, and Victor Oladipo to give Indiana what promises to be its deepest and most talented roster in four years. Crean's program is, at last, poised to give fans a competitive Big Ten team.
How competitive? Here are three things to keep in mind about Indiana -- past, present, and future.
The mess that Kelvin Sampson left behind was unfortunate...but not unprecedented.
After Sampson was shown the door in February 2008, the entire Indiana roster fell apart over the course of the next four months. Some players transferred (e.g., Jordan Crawford), and others that stayed behind were dismissed by new coach Crean. Sure, that doomed IU for the 2008-09 season, but haven't other programs been able to overcome even larger challenges? Take Ohio State. In 2004 their head coach, Jim O'Brien, was ousted suddenly when it came to light that he had "loaned" money to an OSU recruit in 1998. Even more damaging was the fact that O'Brien's exit took place in June, arguably the worst time for a coaching change, and indeed the Buckeyes lost out on an entire year of recruiting. But, all in all, Ohio State has fared pretty well under Thad Matta. Indiana can do the same under Crean, and the time is now.
The Hoosiers have to start winning after Feb. 1...
The most striking aspect of IU under Crean has been the team's total inability to win after February 1. In the past three seasons the Hoosiers have gone just 3-29 in games played in February and March. Yes, injuries have played a role in that record. Creek has been sidelined by season-ending injuries in each of his first two years, and last year starters like Watford (wrist) and Verdell Jones (knee) had to play hurt. Still, injuries happen to other teams, too (Purdue fans now set their watches by the yearly Robbie Hummel incident), and somehow they do better than 3-29. For his part Crean has made it clear he's focused on precisely this problem: "This team wasn't tough enough last year to finish." Crean's a former assistant of Tom Izzo's, so of course he's going to equate losses with a lack of "toughness" -- that's Izzo 101. Who knows, maybe that is indeed part of the problem, but I have an additional suggestion that may not correlate so tidily with sheer toughness.
...And they have to stop fouling.
Last year Indiana's offense improved by leaps and bounds over what it was in 2009-10, but that didn't save the Hoosiers from a last-place finish in the Big Ten. The problem, as you may have guessed, was defense. In part IU was simply unlucky. Any team that sees its conference opponents make 40 percent of their threes is highly likely to "improve" its perimeter D the following year. But, make no mistake, IU did itself no favors with its constant fouling. To some observers the frequent hacking may have reflected the desperation of an overmatched team, but I don't buy it. I think Indiana would have found themselves much less overmatched if they'd simply cut down on their fouling.
Crean has good reason to believe things are about to get much better. The recruiting class that's scheduled to arrive at Indiana in the fall of 2012 was recently ranked tops in the nation by ESPN.com. And while questions have been raised regarding the potential eligibility of 2012 recruit Hanner Perea, the overall arc of the IU program is trending in the right direction. Don't pencil in Indiana for next year's Final Four just yet, but in 2012, 25 years after the program's last national championship, the Hoosiers figure to give their fans a brand of basketball that's somewhat less at odds with all those championship banners.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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