Friday, August 1, 2008

Oh, How The Mighty Have Fallen

In February, mid-way through the Big Ten season, the Indiana Hoosiers were a top-ten team in the nation, led by star freshman guard Eric Gordon, bruising big man D.J. White, and a marquee coach in Kelvin Sampson. They were a trendy Final Four pick, and basketball-mania was alive and well in the Hoosier State.

And then things got ugly. Sampson accepted a buy-out from the school after it was revealed that he engaged in unsavory and illegal recruiting tactics. His indiscretions were particularly bad considering he left Oklahoma University surrounded by similar allegations. Assistant Dan Dakich took over and did the best he could, but the team collapsed. There was even a period of time when it was unclear if the players would show up to play for their new coach.

The Hoosiers lost unexpectedly to Minnesota in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament and slipped to an 8th seed in the Big Dance, where they promptly lost to Arkansas. Not exactly the results you would expect from one of college basketball's powerhouses.

And then things got really ugly. Despite hiring Tom Crean from Marquette, a terrific coach and recruiter, the team began to disintegrate. Gordon declared for the NBA draft (no surprise there), and White and forward Lance Stemler graduated. Sophomore Armon Basset and junior JaMarcus Ellis, two key contributors that were suspended by Dakich, were thrown off the team for good and transferred. Another forward, DeAndre Thomas, decided he wasn't going to come back, and little-used freshman center Eli Holman left the school after getting into an argument with Crean in his office. He apparently threw a potted plant and Crean had to call the police. You know it's bad when bench-warmers are throwing potted plants. Finally, talented guard Jordan Crawford transferred to Xavier, completing the exodus and depleting the Hoosiers.

So what can we expect from Crean's team? Indiana's fans are perhaps the most passionate in the country, and while they have to know that this will be a down year, Crean will still be on a short leash. He only has one returning player, forward Kyle Taber, who averaged a whopping 1.6 points per game last year. The rest are newcomers, and since Crean didn't have much time to hire a staff and recruit, he wasn't able to compile a top-shelf incoming class. Uh oh.

This situation reminds me of North Carolina's predicament in 2001, when they went 8-20 under the overwhelmed Matt Doherty. The talent level was low, the coach was unprepared, and the fans were ravenous. I would expect a similar record in Bloomington this year.

But there is hope, and it lies in Crean. By all accounts, he is a terrific coach, able to motivate his players and get the most out of their talent. The Hoosiers will struggle mightily this year, but if the fan-base is patient enough to let Crean recruit and develop his own talent, Indiana will be back at the top of the Big Ten soon enough. Just look at what happened to UNC. They were awful in 2001, but won the national championship only four years later.

My advice to Hoosiers fans is this: wait it out. It will be tough losing in East Lansing by 25 points. It will be even tougher sweating out close games with Northwestern. But the allure of playing for Indiana will bring talented players and Crean will mold them into a winning program soon. He transformed Marquette from Wisconsin's ugly step-sister into a perennial Final Four contender. He will do the same for the Hoosiers.

And if that doesn't console you, at least the Colts should be good.

Posted by Ross Weingarten

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