With time winding down against Kentucky last season, Christian Watford stepped into his shot and let everyone know Indiana basketball was back.
Watford’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer to lift Indiana to a win against the No. 1 team in the country on Dec. 10, 2011 was one of the most memorable moments of the 2011-2012 college basketball season. Fans at Assembly Hall stormed the court as the historic program had lots of reason to cheer after some ugly seasons.
“There’s no question that game put them back on the map,” said Don Fischer, who is currently in his 40th season serving as Indiana’s play-by-play announcer. “It wouldn’t have seemed so as much if they weren’t able to build on that as the year went along, but they were able to build on it. And without question, that game itself was a phenomenal win for Indiana basketball.”
The Hoosiers, with five national championships and all of their rich basketball tradition, had their program take a hit a little more than four years ago when head coach Kelvin Sampson was caught up in a scandal that involved making improper phone calls to recruits. The school didn’t face major sanctions from the NCAA, as it was placed on a three-year probation, and it also self-imposed the loss of one scholarship.
But even while Indiana dodged the NCAA’s hammer, many basketball players either left or were kicked off the team. The program was in shambles.
Keenan Gill, a lifelong fan of Indiana basketball, said it was very difficult to watch.
“We had administrators hiding in back hallways, and ducking out the backdoor to avoid answering what was going on,” Gill said. “It seemed like the walls were coming down around the program.”
A historic program facing some sanctions and a negative image should ring familiar to Penn State football fans. There are much different circumstances between what the two schools have gone through, but Fischer said he can draw some parallels between what happened a few years ago at Indiana to what Penn State has been through in the past year with the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse case.
“It was a great deal different than what Penn State is facing, at least from a player standpoint, but certainly not from the ‘black eye’ perspective,” Fischer said. “Obviously this has been a huge black eye for Penn State, because this has been a huge black eye for its football program. And Indiana went through the same thing with its basketball program.”
While Penn State still has a long way to go to get through its sanctions and scholarship reductions, which were handed down by the NCAA in July, Indiana’s basketball team has found its way back to the top.
The Hoosiers were the No. 1 team in the preliminary AP poll this season, which comes on the heels of a 27-win campaign a season ago. But it wasn’t an easy turnaround.
By the start of Tom Crean’s first season in 2008-2009, Indiana had just two players — both former walk-ons — remaining from its 2007-08 roster, and things took a turn for the worse on the hardwood in Bloomington.
The Hoosiers went 6-25 in the 2008-09 season, which included a dismal 1-17 mark in the Big Ten. Indiana was losing games fans couldn’t imagine before the season..
“I remember we had a 20-point lead against Lipscomb and they came back and beat us,” Gill said. “I remember walking out in the hall and thinking ‘What kind of basketball hell have we been thrust into here?’ ”
Gill noted that though the fanbase was devastated, it was resilient, and still came to home games in large numbers. Though the wins weren’t coming, there certainly weren’t slim crowds at Assembly Hall. In Crean’s first three years at Indiana, the team went 28-66, but averaged 14,993 fans at home games.
To the chagrin of those Indiana fans, things didn’t improve much for the team in the next two seasons. The Hoosiers improved their win totals each season, but not by much, and tallied a total of 22 wins in Crean’s second and third seasons.
Crean, however, kept chipping away, and spent hours upon hours on the recruiting trail. Dustin Dopirak, a former Daily Collegian staff writer who covers Indiana for the Bloomington Times-Herald, said Crean is relentless.
“The guy just works so hard. I’m not sure if he doesn’t have a caffeine addiction, because he’s wired all the time, and I know not all of that is natural,” Dopirak said. “But he just worked so hard to make it happen. He’s gone after everybody recruiting-wise…took some risks, but also built the in-state connections back.”
The work the former Marquette coach did paid off when five-star center Cody Zeller committed to Indiana in November 2010. He stepped on campus last fall and made an impact right away.
The 7-foot Zeller led the Hoosiers in scoring (15.6 ppg) and rebounding (6.6 ppg) last season on a team that reached the Sweet 16. Zeller, who is from Washington, Ind., (a little more than an hour drive from Bloomington) is what Gill called a “stereotypical Indiana gym rat.”
“[Cody has] an unassailable work ethic and a character that you really can’t teach in college athletics,” Gill said. “You really couldn’t have asked for a better star for that team, a better person to take Indiana over that hump.”
Zeller is one of nine Indiana natives on the team’s current roster, and Dopirak said in-state recruiting was a big part of the rebuilding process. Dopirak added that like Penn State football, many local kids grow up and dream about playing Indiana basketball.
“You have players that grow up in-state that desperately want to be part of that program, and there’s a degree to which the shine will never fall off,” Dopirak said. “The idea of an Indiana kid playing Indiana basketball means a lot of the same to what playing Penn State football means to a Pennsylvania kid. Even when it’s really down, it’s an attractive idea.”
The same Kentucky team ultimately ended Indiana’s season in March, but the run still featured wins over three teams ranked in the top five and featured more cheers than Crean had ever heard in Assembly Hall. So, even up against a depleted roster and some sanctions of its own, Indiana, its famed program and large fanbase have made a return to the top.
And it seems like the Hoosiers are back to stay.
“From all of their tough times that they went through, they got a reward out of it,” Fischer said. “They got to celebrate some of the finest wins that Indiana fans have seen in a long time.”