The coach would have been within his rights to curse the basketball gods. He might even have been within his rights to bail for another job. But he stayed true to his word (and contract), hardly a given in today's college sports climate, and soldiered on. He worked the state like a candidate running for office, winning back supporters and inviting former players to attend practices and games and address the team. Crean's squads, stocked as they were with likable kids who went to class, avoided the criminal-justice system and competed with unstinting effort, were winning fans if not games.
And then the Fates changed their tune. The Hoosiers won their first eight games of the 2011--12 season. On Dec. 10 junior forward Christian Watford drilled a three-pointer at the buzzer as Indiana beat top-ranked Kentucky. Keith Smart didn't induce this much fanfare. Delirious fans—including what now purports to be the largest student section in the country—covered the court, and a video of fans' reaction at Nick's, the popular on-campus bar, was a YouTube sensation. This was catharsis.
If there was no single moment of reckoning during the turnaround, there were a few critical plot points. Last year Crean landed Cody Zeller, a 6'11" McDonald's All-American center from Washington, Ind. Zeller's oldest brother, Luke, played at Notre Dame, and his other brother, Tyler, is a senior forward at North Carolina. But Cody stayed close to home, lured, he says, as much by Indiana's business program as by the basketball program.
Jared Fogle, the svelte Subway spokesman, may be a regular at Indiana games (his sister-in-law, Beth McLaughlin, is Crean's secretary), but Zeller pulled an anti-Jared last summer, adding 15 pounds of muscle mass to his frame. The result: a deceptively rugged player and Indiana's first legitimate center in years. On defense he can hold his own (on New Year's Eve, Zeller limited Ohio State All-America Jared Sullinger to three field goals in Indiana's 74--70 upset of the No. 2 Buckeyes), and on offense he can score in the post and open the floor for his teammates—not least junior guard Jordan Hulls, a Bloomington native who struggles to create his own shot but might be the best pure shooter in the college game. (Hulls hits 58.2% from three-point range and 86.7% from the charity stripe.)
Indiana also benefited from the emergence of the two-headed monster known to teammates as SheilaDepot: sophomores Will Sheehey and Victor Oladipo. At first blush the two could scarcely seem more different. Sheehey, a forward, is a Jake Gyllenhaal look-alike from Florida whose father, Mike, played for Syracuse and is an executive at Comcast. Oladipo, a guard, is the son of Nigerian immigrants and grew up in the D.C. suburbs. But the two were roommates last year in McNutt Residence Center and found they shared plenty: tastes, temperament and having twin sisters.
As players both are superbly athletic, and both detest losing—so much so that they stayed in Bloomington during the summer to work on improving. "Running stadium steps, lifting, shooting, positioning drills, conditioning," says Sheehey. "You name it, we did it." The legacy of the hard work: Oladipo is averaging 11.4 points, and Sheehey was averaging 10.7 before he was sidelined in late December with a left ankle injury.
The source of Oladipo's intensity and industriousness is obvious. His father, Chris, who came to the U.S. in 1986, works three jobs to provide for his wife and four children. When Victor was in high school, Chris suggested that he spend a summer not playing AAU ball but learning martial arts and improving his discipline—in China. (Victor chose hoops instead.) Chris is indifferent to basketball, seldom watching his son play, even on television. "My mom is into it," says Victor, "but my dad? He doesn't really know anything or get that excited about basketball."
Which puts him at odds with Indiana fans. They're thrilled by the present and giddy about the future. Crean and his staff have secured one of the strongest incoming recruiting classes, rated No. 2 in the country by some services and led by Yogi Ferrell, a quicksilver point guard from Indianapolis; Hanner Perea, an athletic forward from La Porte, Ind.; and Peter Jurkin, a 7-footer from North Carolina who plays, hilariously, for a team coached by Muggsy Bogues. It falls to Crean to guard the optimism. "We're absolutely committed to not going back to where [we were]," he says, "but we're also committed to not getting ahead of ourselves. If I've learned anything, it's that you'd better stay true to the process."
Meanwhile, Chris Oladipo has a standing invitation to attend a game. He'll see that his son is an entertaining player whose surprisingly strong team has restored dignity to a storied program. If that's not inducement enough, odds are that following these Hoosiers will give Chris a new confidence in his ability to solve word puzzles.