Indiana is 11-0 this season.
That in itself is quite a surprise. However, when placed in the context of Tom Crean's tenure as the Hoosiers' coach and how far he has brought the program, the 11-0 record is nothing short of amazing.
Crean inherited a program that was literally in ashes when he left Marquette to come to Indiana. Kelvin Sampson was fired after he committed numerous NCAA rules violation and only one player stayed on once Sampson was axed and Crean took over in 2008-09.
The Hoosiers were 6-25 in Crean's that season, then improved slightly to 10-21 in 2009-10. After a 12-20 finish last season, there was speculation Crean could be on the hot seat even though he still had seven years remaining on his 10-year contract.
There certainly isn't any question about Crean's job status anymore. Indiana will match last season's win total tonight if, as expected, it beats Maryland-Baltimore County (1-9) in the last non-conference game. The Hoosiers haven't been 12-0 since the 1975-76 national championship team went 32-0 and became the last Division I team to go undefeated.
Indiana is ranked No. 17 in the Associated Press media poll and 35th in the RPI while KenPom.com has the Hoosiers rated as the seventh-best team in the nation. Though BasketballState.com ranks Indiana's strength of schedule at just 218th, the Hoosiers do have a signature win that should stand out all the way until Selection Sunday. That came Dec. 10 when they knocked Kentucky 73-72. The Wildcats were ranked No. 1in the AP poll at the time.
Since then, Indiana has beaten Notre Dame 69-58 and Howard 107-50. Yet the Hoosiers have a hard time still not thinking about Kentucky win.
"It was a monumental win in the way we did it against a quality of team like that," Crean said. "Our team has worked so hard for so long and for our guys to get into position to win a game like that and then actually win it was very special. It wasn't always textbook form in the way we did it but it was one of those magical moments in time for everyone. It was great that our fans could share in the experience. They've waited a long time to enjoy a moment like that."
Indiana hasn't had a winning season since going 25-7 during Sampson's turmoil-filled final season in 2007-08. However, that season ended in ugly fashion with the Hoosiers getting bounced in the opening round of the Big Ten tournament by Minnesota and the first round of the NCAA tournament by Alabama.
While it might still be too early to be thinking about March, Indiana's hope of returning to the Big Dance is certainly realistic. The Hoosiers are sixth in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency (115.7) and 25th in adjusted defensive efficiency (90.3). They also lead the nation in three-point field goal shooting at 46.8 percent and their 57.8 effective field goal percentage ranks sixth.
Indiana welcomed one of the best recruiting classes in the country, led by Mr. Indiana Basketball Cody Zeller. The forward, who is the younger brother of North Carolina's Tyler Zeller, has made an immediate impact. He leads the team in scoring (15.3), rebounding (7.4), steals (2.3) and blocks (1.6). Zeller's 131.1 offensive rating is 29th in the nation and he also ranks 23rd in True Shooting Percentage (68.9), 31st in effective field goal percentage (65.6) and 41st in steal percentage (4.6).
Junior guard Jordan Hulls has been lights out as he leads the nation with a 73.1 effective field goal percentage and a 75.8 True Shooting Percentage while averaging 11.7 points a game. His 129.3 offensive rating is 33rd nationally.
In all, Indiana has five players scoring in double figures, with sophomore guard Victor Olapido (12.5), junior forward Christian Watford (11.2) and sophomore forward Will Sheehey (10.7) joining Zeller and Hulls. Junior guards Verdell Jones III (8.9) and Maurice Creek (8.0) aren't being asked to shoulder the scoring load as much as in past seasons, but both are thriving this season with more weapons around them.
Indiana will quickly learn how it stacks up among the Big Ten's elite as it opens conference play next Wednesday at Michigan State then hosts Ohio State on Dec. 31 and Michigan on Jan. 5. All are ranked in the latest AP poll while Ohio State is No.3 in the KenPom.com rankings, Michigan State is No. 8 and Michigan is No. 43.
"I think it's safe to say expectations of our team from the outside have changed since the Kentucky game," Crean said. "The biggest thing is that our guys stay locked in to their own expectations. It's so important that they understand the importance of improving, having team unity, playing fundamentally sound on the offensive and defensive ends, the type of preparation that goes into every game. If they keep doing that and keep their intensity level where it's been at then we have a chance to be a better team. The key is do you want to build on the opportunity we have and keep moving down the road or do you want to keep standing? Our kids want to keep moving."
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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