How long has it been since Indiana basketball fans were genuinely happy? Not just Cody-Zeller-committed-today happy, or we-beat-Michigan happy, but this-is-what-we-want-our-program-to-be happy.
It has been too long. It has been almost a quarter-century. That’s incredible, but it’s true. Those were the days of Alan Henderson,Damon Bailey and Calbert Cheaney. They were Hoosiers by birth and by choice. They played for Bob Knight when he still was pushing players to the limit but perhaps not over it, certainly not when a camera might catch him in the act.
Nine players in the 1992-93 season were from in-state. The Hoosiers compiled 31-4 record —and 17-1 in the Big Ten. Cheaney was the national player of the year over Chris Webber, Jamal Mashburn, Bobby Hurley and Penny Hardaway. That’s how good it was then. And then things gradually began to deteriorate to the point that IU and its fans can remember what the program has been, but perhaps not how to get there.
As the NCAA Tournament began Thursday without the Hoosiers for the second time in the past four seasons,Indiana chose to dismiss the third person who attempted to restore Indiana basketball following Knight’s tumultuous dismissal. Tom Crean came closer than most, but he most definitely missed. IU could have had better timing with this decision than to spoil the first day of the NCAAs with it, and the school could have waited for Crean to get a job elsewhere and maybe saved itself a few bucks, but it was not the wrong move.
So now Indiana has a chance to get it right. This is the best circumstance a new Indiana coach will enter since Knight was hired coming off a 17-win season in 1971. The Cook Hall practice facility opened in 2010. Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall underwent a multi-million-dollar renovation just last offseason. Indiana University still is one of the finest institutions of higher learning. The No. 3 prospect in the 2018 recruiting class, wing Romeo Langford, is an in-stater from New Albany.
If Indiana gets the right coach, and if that coach gets the job right, Indiana can be Indiana again. It can be keeping company once more with the other bluebloods: Kentucky, Kansas, Carolina, the rest. Indiana does not have to be the "other."
Whether it is Gregg Marshall, Archie Miller, Chris Mack or someone else, there are so many excellent candidates. The winner will need to embrace the fan base, embrace the talent base and work well with a horde of committed media outlets that are, when it comes to IU, basketball-first.
The IU administration hired the right man when it lured Crean from Marquette in April 2008, but he found himself plunged into the wrong circumstance. APR issues, player behavior, the lingering NCAA issues that were generated during Kelvin Sampson’s stay —all of that damaged Crean’s ability to get his program going in the right direction.
And it maybe changed him, too. The avalanche of criticism he received from the fan base and the media for results that had nothing to do with his talent or performance —that directly were the product of his starting his first season with zero returning scholarship players —turned Crean more insulated, less affable, perhaps less trusting.
The coach at Indiana has the advantage of working in a state in which the high school coaches are extremely capable and the orientation toward the game produces an inordinate number of high-level prospects. Crean never really had a great command of the talent base, save for the 2012 class that featured point guard Yogi Ferrell. But several of the players from that class were woefully misevaluated. Center Hanner Mosquera-Perea will appear in the NCAA Tournament on Thursdayfor East Tennessee State. He is a part-time player averaging 8.4 points and 4.6 rebounds. He was supposed to be a jewel of that group.
The new coach cannot miss this opportunity in the same way. Crean recruited some excellent players, but it never clicked with his fan base that he so often went so far afield. There have been loads of terrific players from Indiana who played elsewhere in recent seasons: Gary Harris at Michigan State, Glenn Robinson and Zak Irvin at Michigan, Trevon Bluiett at Xavier, Caleb Swanigan at Purdue. Four of the top 30 prospects in the class of 2017 are from Indiana. None signed with the Hoosiers.
The memory of what Indiana basketball used to be is tough for longtime fans to shake. The reality of what it is now is directly in front of fans who grew up in the past decade.
It always has been unfair to Crean to tack on his record from the first three seasons on the job, when he was excavating the program from the disaster he inherited. But even just examining from year 4 on, his Big Ten Conference winning percentage was .583. There were two Sweet 16 trips as No. 4 seeds, which were nice, but also one that ended there despite a No. 1 seed. That 2013 implosion against the Syracuse zone might have been the blow from which Tom Crean’s Indiana never fully recovered.
The new coach will not have that burden him. He will have hope, money, administrative support and a state that deeply cares about basketball —most of which wants Indiana basketball restored to its rightful place in the college hierarchy. On the day Crean was introduced at a press conference as the Hoosiers' new coach, he was asked why he had accepted this position after declining so many other approaches.
"It's Indiana,"Crean responded.
But it hasn't been Indiana, really, for so very long.