Tough times paying off for Crean, IU

Originally Published: March 22, 2012
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

ATLANTA -- When it seemed as though it couldn't get any worse for Indiana basketball -- but somehow did -- Tom Crean could almost always count on a phone call from an old friend.

That friend was John Calipari, the same Calipari who now stands between Indiana and the Hoosiers' first Elite Eight appearance in 10 years. Or to put a finer point on it, Calipari stands in the way of IU becoming, well, IU again.

Calipari coaches Kentucky, the No. 1 overall seed and the favorite not only to beat Indiana on Friday evening in the Sweet 16 but to beat anybody and everybody on its way to a national championship. The Wildcats are that scarily talented.

But UK's only regular-season loss came Dec. 10 to … Indiana. It was a game the Hoosiers won by a single point, but, Calipari said Thursday, "They beat us worse than that."

So yes, there's the rematch factor. And the revenge factor. And the dear-God-how-many-times-are-they-going-to-show-that-commercial-in-which-Christian-Watford-sinks-the-trey-at-the-buzzer-to-beat-UK factor.

"ESPN does a great job of showing it," Watford said.

But this South Regional semifinal isn't just about IU's Friday night or the rest of its possible tournament future; it's also about its hoops past. It's about those phone calls from Calipari to Crean.

[+] EnlargeTom Crean
AP Photo/Rick BowmerTom Crean was 6-25 in his first season at Indiana.

They weren't mercy calls. That would have been an insult to a new coach whose Indiana program was in a total free fall as recently as three seasons ago -- Crean's first at IU. Even Crean, who is convinced everything can be overcome by sweat equity, had miscalculated the depth of the quicksand in those early seasons in Bloomington.

"So … you have a big task like we have at Indiana and then all of a sudden it's a lot bigger than you ever thought it would be and it's a lot more challenging than you could have ever imagined," Crean said.

An IU-worst 6-25 record in his first season (1-17 in Big Ten play). A 10-21 record in 2009. A 12-20 record last season.

"It was kind of hard going from top 10 the year before to a school record for losses the next year," said Kyle Taber, who was IU's team captain in 2008 and now is an assistant coach at Lake Forest (Ill.) College. "Those were kind of the dark days."

Kind of? It was absolutely pitch black. Which is why Calipari would call.

"And I will always appreciate that because it wasn't just, 'Hey, hang in there,'" Crean said. "Anybody can tell you that. It was tangible things: 'Have you thought about this? Are you looking at that?' Things that really make you think."

Crean and Calipari are connected by the University of Pittsburgh. Calipari grew up near that town and was an assistant coach at Pitt. Crean also spent time as an assistant at Pitt, although they never worked on the same staff.

But Calipari respected Crean's work ethic -- a "Basketball Benny" is the way Calipari described him. In other words, a hoops lifer.

When Crean left Marquette for Indiana, Hoosiers basketball looked like a dinner plate dropped from the top of Memorial Union. Everything was in a thousand pieces thanks to the NCAA infractions committed by Kelvin Sampson, the subsequent self-imposed IU penalties and, later, NCAA probation.

"[Y]ou have to have a will that's stronger than everybody around you -- and he does," Calipari said. "To get Indiana back where now you're looking at a top-five program that kids from across the country would watch them play and say, 'I'd like to play for them.' To do that in the time frame is amazing."

It is when you remember what Crean began with at IU. After defections, transfers and dismissals, his roster featured exactly one scholarship player (Taber, a former walk-on) and Brett Finkelmeier, a walk-on guard. That was it -- two guys. Only Taber had played any significant minutes.

The first summer workout was almost comical. There was Taber, Finkelmeier (now an IU dental school student) and the strength coach.

"It was definitely awkward," said Taber, 26. "I mean, we could only play so much one-on-one."

Taber never considered transferring. Crean never considered letting up, even though his first IU team would lose games by stunning margins. And Hoosiers fans would never give up completely.

After a 38-point defeat to Notre Dame at the Maui Invitational, the IU players reported to the team hotel pool for stretching exercises in the water. Indiana fans staying at the same hotel got off their lounge chairs and began applauding and cheering.

"We got beat by 30, but our fans understood all along," Taber said. "They respected what we were trying to do. That's why they never left."

Crean would always remind his teams to take a moment and glance at the five national championship banners that hang at Assembly Hall. He wanted his players to understand IU's history as well as its expectations. It seemed ludicrous then, but now, not so much.

Taber still remembers the intensity of Crean's practices. If you failed to take a charge, a whistle would blow, the entire team would line up and, one by one, each player would barrel down the middle of lane until you learned how to stand your ground.

Most of all, he remembers his senior night, the IU awards banquet and even a recent visit to Assembly Hall, when Crean pointed to him in the crowd and asked him to stand up.

"I had to give a wave," Taber said. "It really meant a lot for him to recognize me."

Crean, more than anyone, understands that Indiana is two wins from a Final Four appearance because of players such as Taber. When Crean poured the foundation to his program in 2008, Taber was part of the rebar.

An IU victory Friday night at the Georgia Dome would almost complete the circle. From devastation to restoration. His friend Calipari, who has a mandate from Big Blue Nation to win it all, will be there to try to end Indiana's tournament run.

"It's Kentucky," Calipari said. "Do you expect anything else?"

Taber won't be in Atlanta for the game. Instead, he'll watch it on TV back in the Chicago area.

"If we won, I think everyone would know for sure that we're for real, that we're back," Taber said. "It would be like, 'We're here to stay.'"

Not to worry. Whatever happens in the game, Crean and IU hoops aren't going anywhere except up.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. His new book, "The Last Great Game," focuses on the 1992 Kentucky-Duke game. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.

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