Checking in with ... Indiana
After last year's Big Ten championship-contending season, IU has smaller goals
Tom Crean praised Tom Pritchard, one of two leftover Kelvin Sampson recruits
Without much hope for a .500 season, Crean is left pleading for student support
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The last thing Indiana players see, when they exit their locker room in Assembly Hall these days, is a framed letter from Larry Bird. It's posted just to the right of the doorway, at head-height, and while new coach Tom Crean hopes to put a steady rotation of mail in this spot, Bird's is the first, on Indiana Pacers stationary that's dated Aug. 25. It's worth noting here that Bird spent 24 days at IU as a freshman in 1974, found the size of its student body overwhelming, dropped out and returned home to French Lick, Ind., where he temporarily drove a garbage truck. So he did not, understandably, write Crean to reminisce.
What Larry Legend offered instead was wisdom and support: "As the great Vince Lombardi once said, 'Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing.' That quote served as an inspiration through both my playing days and my coaching days, and is also the attitude I take now as the Indiana Pacers president. ... I know that you share the same desire to lead a winning team, and I'm sure that with your determination and work ethic you will."
It's nice for Crean, who left a safe gig at Marquette in April and inherited a program in shambles following Hurricane Kelvin (Sampson), to have believers in high places. But if fans in Bloomington evaluate the performance of the '08-09 Hoosiers on the Lombardi-and-Larry Scale -- with winning as the only thing -- then they may consider this a nuclear winter. With just one player, Kyle Taber (who started four games and scored 28 total points), returning from a scandal-marred '07-08, smaller goals are in order. Like trying not to finish last in the Big Ten. Or not losing any of their first four games in Bloomington, which are exhibitions against Anderson, Bemidji State, Northwestern State and IUPUI. Or not receiving any additional penalties from the NCAA, which is still mulling over Sampson's transgressions after having already severely limited IU's recruiting efforts. There's a reason Crean was given the security of a 10-year, $23.6 million contract: If another major program has ever faced such a daunting rebuilding situation, he isn't aware of it. "Nothing like this," he said. "Nothing with 28 points back."
There is a need for unreasonable optimism in the face of this grim reality, and so Crean has hung something with a completely different tone than Bird's letter on a wall 10 feet away. It's an old-timey, black-and-white Successories poster of men attempting to play tennis on the wings of a flying plane. The tagline reads, WHO SAYS IT CAN'T HAPPEN. "That was something I had hanging in my house for a long time," Crean said. "I figured there's no better place for it right now than our locker room."
At this point Crean is more willing to show off IU's new decorations than he is his inexperienced team. Practices have been closed ("We're not ready for a full unveiling yet," he said) and the public's only serious look at his players came in a scrimmage following last Saturday's Homecoming football game. What's evident, at the very least, is that Crean has put considerable effort into reviving IU history. He has invited former stars back to Assembly Hall for Midnight Madness. Last week, he had replicas of the team's five national title banners, as well as photos of their past Big Ten MVPs hung in the hallway outside the locker room. Those same walls were nearly empty during Sampson's tenure ... and he left the roster nearly empty on his way out.
Over lunch at Bloomington's Coaches Bar and Grill, in the lower level of the Hilton Garden Inn where Crean stayed for the first week after he took the job, he talked about the personnel that had been assembled for Year 1 of the overhaul. When the Hoosiers' assistant coaches, Tim Buckley, Bennie Seltzer and Roshown McLeod, joined us, Crean announced that "we just lost one of our best players" -- and then pointed to McLeod's broken wrist, which was in a brace after a collision with freshman shooting guard Matt Roth. One has to assume that McLeod, who starred at Duke and played four seasons in the NBA from 1998-2002, was by far the Hoosiers' best player in practice.
The active player with perhaps the most potential is 6-foot-4, 211-pound guard Nick Williams, whom Seltzer began recruiting for Marquette back in the summer of 2006 after seeing him at Houston's Kingwood Classic. Williams was the second-leading scorer in Saturday's scrimmage with 28 points, and is so valuable immediately because he can play -- as well as defend -- three positions: shooting guard, small forward and power forward. Coaches say he's already been one of the more vocal leaders on the floor in workouts. "I wouldn't call it definite yet that he's starting," Crean says of Williams, "but I'd be shocked if he didn't."
With Taber still rehabbing from knee surgery, the Hoosiers' de-facto "veteran" is junior shooting guard Devan Dumes, who should start at the two after transferring from Vincennes (Ind.) junior college. Crean says Dumes "has a lot of natural scoring abilities" and is a "very good three-point shooter" who still has to work on his ball-handling and mid-range game. Dumes averaged 16.9 points at Vincennes, and has D-I experience -- but that was two seasons ago as a backup on a 13-19 Eastern Michigan team. The second coming of Eric Gordon he is not.
Seltzer said that depending on what sets IU runs, either Dumes or freshman Verdell Jones, who is more of a natural point guard, would initiate the offense, while Williams would have some playmaking opportunities on the perimeter. Jones led IU with 30 points in Saturday's scrimmage and is a near-lock to start at the point, a position he excelled at in high school in Champaign, Ill.
The freshman Crean went out of his way to praise was Tom Pritchard, one of the two players (along with Roth) who remains from the recruiting class Sampson signed in November 2007. Crean called Pritchard soon after taking the job, and despite the fact that he visited campus again during the tumultuous spring -- "It got the point where where we didn't even want [the former players] around the guys who were taking visits," Crean said -- the physical four-man stayed committed to IU. "He's going to be a good forward for us," Crean said of the 6-9, 242-pounder, who has dropped 26 pounds since arriving on campus this summer. "He can rebound, he can score around the rim, and he's becoming more aggressive."