Crean, Indiana Hoosiers looking to return to glory days
By Marlen Garcia, USA TODAY
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. The building is a celebration of the past, yet symbolic of the ongoing transformation of the Indiana men's basketball program.
Cook Hall, 67,000 square feet of steel, glass and cement, is part museum and part practice facility that might make some NBA teams envious.
"It's almost a metaphor for what we're trying to do in terms of coming back and re-establishing ourselves as basketball royalty," Indiana athletics director Fred Glass says.
Completed in March, the building cost nearly $25 million and houses men's and women's basketball coaches' offices, practice courts, a spa, video room, lounge for NBA scouts and underground tunnel to Assembly Hall, the team's 17,357-seat home since the 1971-72 season.
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The two-story lobby, open daily to the public, is filled with memorabilia, including five NCAA championship trophies, the last won in 1987 under Bob Knight. They remind all that IU was a national power, rivaling Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina and UCLA — before Duke won its four NCAA titles and Michigan State became a Final Four regular.
Yet that time seems so long ago, and IU's reputation as a basketball power seems trapped in the past. With the early signing period beginning Wednesday and a new season Friday, the school is trying to get back to the future.
The scandalous tenure of Kelvin Sampson is more familiar to many. Sampson didn't last two seasons at IU. His contract was hastily bought out in February 2008 because of major NCAA violations rooted in impermissible phone calls to recruits and lying to NCAA investigators. (Sampson had been sanctioned for impermissible calls at Oklahoma when IU hired him in 2006.)
The black eye has started fading amid efforts by coach Tom Crean, hired April 2, 2008, after nine seasons at Marquette that included a Final Four appearance in 2003. Evidence can be found in recruits whose attention he has. Blue-chipper Cody Zeller, a 6-10 senior forward from Washington, Ind., is considering joining the Hoosiers. Zeller's mother, Lorri, says he will decide within a week among Indiana, 2010 NCAA finalist Butler and 2009 national champion North Carolina, where brother Tyler plays.
Five years ago, Indiana probably wouldn't have made Zeller's list. "I would say it's safe to say that," says Zeller's coach at Washington High, Gene Miiller.
Crean already has secured a commitment for 2012 from Hanner Perea, a Colombian who is a junior at LaPorte (Ind.) La Lumiere School and ranked 10th in his class by Rivals.com.
"I realize how big it is — for me," Perea says. "Well, for both of us."
Crean's record in two seasons (16-46) doesn't reflect it, but the program has come a long way in a short time. Upon his arrival, he inherited school-imposed NCAA sanctions that cost him a scholarship and put strict parameters on recruiting in his first year. The school remains on probation until Nov. 24, 2011.
Before Sampson's "debacle," as Glass calls it, Indiana had never been hit with a major basketball rule violation. Sampson left it decimated. The AD who hired him, Rick Greenspan, left IU in December 2008.
Under Sampson, some players had done poorly as students; the school lost two more scholarships under the NCAA's tracking of its Academic Progress Rate. The team's collective grade-point average was 2.11, Glass says, adding last semester it was 3.16.
In spring 2008, four players graduated, four were dismissed, two left for other schools, freshman Eric Gordon left for the NBA and IU granted releases to two incoming scholarship freshmen.
In December 2008, Gordon, a member of the Los Angeles Clippers, revealed that some players had used drugs. Another IU player from that team, Adam Ahlfeld, confirmed it, yet another condemnation of Sampson's tenure.
The NCAA effectively banned Sampson from college coaching until 2013. He lost an appeal last year. He now is an assistant for the Milwaukee Bucks.
In his first season in 2008-09, Crean had one returning scholarship player in then-senior Kyle Taber, a former walk-on who had barely played, and walk-on Brett Finkelmeier. The rest were newcomers.
"The programs that have been in the same breath with Indiana for decades, they've never gone through anything like this," Crean says. "Everyone might have a down year from time to time or a down segment, but it's not like the program gets wiped out.
"There's no blueprint for it."
A question looms about whether the program can return to greatness, but before it can be answered, IU must again become relevant. Signs are promising.
Mending high school fences
Crean is trying to bridge a 10-year gap between the firing of Knight, the polarizing coach who led Indiana to three national titles, to present day when it comes to having rapport with Indiana high school coaches and players, the bedrock of Indiana basketball under Knight.
Knight had a tight bond with high school coaches. He held clinics for them and invited them to watch workouts. The relationship stagnated under Knight's successor, Mike Davis, who led Indiana to the national championship game in 2002 but resigned in 2006 amid fan discontent over two middling seasons.
Interviews with a handful of longtime Indiana high school coaches indicate Sampson also was disconnected, though he signed Gordon from Indianapolis North Central High, considered a must by Hoosiers fans who had tired of seeing the state's players leave. Two of Indiana's other recent higher-profile players, Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr., attended Ohio State and led it to the 2007 national final as freshmen.
Purdue and Butler, high school coaches point out, have flourished by recruiting this state and blending in others from around the nation. Crean is looking for a similar mix.
In the post-Knight era, "a lot of those Indiana kids left and went other places," Miiller says. "Indiana wasn't the place everybody wanted to go. Once they get away for 10 years or so, it's harder to get them to come back. (Crean) is really doing a nice job of recruiting the in-state kids now."
Doug Mitchell, coach at North Central High, says Crean's approach is refreshing.
"You're never going to outwork those guys," he says. "They're as tireless as I've seen in 30 years. You don't have doubt that they're going to get the job done."
It's hard to say if Knight is impressed by Crean's perseverance. His relationship with the school still seems icy over his firing. He was a no-show last year when inducted into IU's Hall of Fame.
Attempts to reach Knight, who coached at Texas Tech from 2001 to 2008 and is now an ESPN analyst, were unsuccessful.
Bob Hammel, Knight's friend and former sports editor of the Bloomington Herald Times, arranged a lunch between Knight and Glass in January. It stretched into a five-hour conversation. Glass sees it as a positive sign toward putting the university and Knight on good terms.
"But it has to be on his timetable," Glass says. "I don't want to ever push him or try too hard."
Stepping up recruiting
Crean has widened his recruiting to include younger players, some in middle school, a strategy many coaches have adopted in recent years. He has commitments from ninth-graders Trey Lyles of Indianapolis and James Blackmon Jr. of Fort Wayne, Ind.
Next year, the NCAA will consider legislation to end early offers until after a prospect's junior year in high school. If legislation passes, "we'll adjust just like everyone else," Crean says.
He has a talented team this season, but players are young. Crean has one senior, Jeremiah Rivers, who transferred from Georgetown in 2008.
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Last season, IU won 10 games. Maurice Creek, then a freshman averaging 16.4 points, suffered a season-ending knee injury in late December. Another guard, Matt Roth, played two games before a foot injury ended his season.
Average fan attendance dipped to a 20-year low of 14,331 in 2009 but was up to an average of 15,296 last season, 11th nationally and second in the Big Ten.
"Indiana fans are smart; everybody understands he's got young kids. … There's no doubt Indiana will be back among the elite," says Dan Dakich, a former player and IU assistant who was interim coach after Sampson departed. He now has a radio show for 1070 The Fan in Indianapolis.
"I can't put a time frame on it, but it will be back," says 6-9 sophomore forward Christian Watford of Birmingham. "I'd love to be a part of the success and go down in history as bringing Indiana back to its glory days."
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