- Gene Wojciechowski, Senior Writer
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Other than a few family and friends, there won't be anybody waiting to welcome the Indiana team bus back to Bloomington on Friday morning. The losingest Hoosiers team in Indiana history returned to the IU campus under the cover of basketball infamy.
But if ever a team deserved a standing O and maybe even a ticker-tape shower, it was this season's Hoosiers. They lost 25 games, including their one-and-mercifully-done appearance in the Big Ten tournament Thursday evening, but they won hearts. They finished with the fewest IU wins in 93 years, but also with the most life lessons.
Afterward, there were tears, lots of them, shed in the cinder-block locker room used by the Hoosiers at Conseco Fieldhouse. When first-year Indiana coach Tom Crean finally emerged from the room after his postgame speech to his team, his eyes were as red as IU's jerseys.
Standing just outside the metal door, you could hear almost every word he spoke. You could hear the emotion that comes with surviving basketball hell.
"None of us -- none of us! -- signed up for what we had to deal with," said Crean to his players, his voice crackling with intensity. "But I'm glad I went through it with you. I'm glad I came through it with this staff. We've got a long way to go to get better, but you've come a long, long way."
There was a pause, a long pause, before Crean continued. When he did, you could hear him remind his team of the support given to it by IU fans during this brutal season. You could hear him say how much he respected his players for never phoning it in.
"The last thing is "
Then Crean flashed back to spring 2008 and the final day of individual workouts with the few players left on his team. By then, after the vast crater left by disgraced Kelvin Sampson, there had been mass defections, dismissals and transfers. One of the remaining players on the decimated roster was former walk-on Kyle Taber, a 6-8 senior forward from Evansville who had exactly zero Division I scholarship offers coming out of high school.
"You were so pathetic that day," Crean said. "You were so awful that I walked out of there saying, 'What have we done? What have we done?' I want to tell you: I was dead wrong. Because you got better. You got a lot better."
Once again, you could hear Crean's voice break. Silence, then
"I saw an article today that had a lot of quotes from [Taber's] mom in the Evansville paper," Crean said. "He wanted to be at Indiana. And his mom said if he got to play two minutes as a senior [pause] it would be worth it.
"You did a lot more than that, man. You did a lot more than that. Everybody was going to push you to a place where you could be. And you did it. You did it. You did it, OK? You did it. You have earned your way into history. And nobody can ever take that away from you."
Penn State officially ended IU's season with its 66-51 victory in the opening round of the Big Ten tournament. How the Hoosiers won even six games this season (they were 1-18 against conference opponents if you count Thursday's loss) is beyond me.
Yet how can you not have a soft spot for a team with a desperation roster that includes one senior, five true freshmen and six walk-ons, including a 5-8, 150-pound student manager named Michael Santa? Santa actually played in the waning moments of Thursday night's loss. Afterward, he sat in front of his locker and tugged at his size 46 jersey.
"I'm going to leave it on as long as I can," said Santa, who returns to full-time student manager duty next year.
It mattered to Taber and Santa, and the rest of them, to wear the IU uniform. But guess what Santa, the emergency guard, did after the media eventually cleared out of the locker room? He helped the other managers pack the equipment bags.
"It was fun while it lasted," he said.
Fun? Finishing 6-25? Winning just one Big Ten game? Fun?
"I think when people look back at this season, they'll say, 'This is where it all started,'" Santa said. "From here on out, we're just going to keep going forward."
Crean undoubtedly will coach more talented Indiana teams, but it's doubtful he'll coach one with more dignity. Regardless of the grotesque (for proud IU) record, this is a team worth celebrating.
"What would I tell my kid one day?" said IU guard Jeremiah Rivers, the son of Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "I'd probably tell him it was the toughest, most rewarding year of my life."
And Rivers is a transfer from Georgetown, so he didn't even play this season. But after a practice earlier this week in Bloomington, he told his teammates, "Man, no matter what happens, I think we need to take some pictures and sign autographs because a few years now, when we're all out of college, in the NBA, overseas, in businesses, however you want to put it, we're going to remember this year. It's been special. Yeah, the losing's been tough. But it has been an honor just to be around this team we have."
Years from now, he said, "We're going to look at our team picture and smile."
Taber played for four different head coaches in five years. IU played without injured starting guard Devan Dumes at season's end. Freshman guard Verdell Jones III played more than half the game against Penn State with a thick wrap around his right calf. Smile?
Crean half-jokingly said that if he had known then what he knows now, "I would have gotten more [contract] years at the very beginning." (He began with eight; IU later extended it to 10.) Indiana entered the season with two returning players who had a grand total of just 19 combined points and 185 minutes of experience.
But it was Crean, the eternal optimist, who brought a framed photograph from his house and had it hung in the IU locker room back at Assembly Hall.
The photograph: Two guys are strapped to the wings of a flying airplane as they play tennis. At the bottom of the picture, it reads, "Who says it can't be done?"
It couldn't be done this season, but not for a lack of trying. Indiana was overmatched and sometimes overwhelmed, but never outworked.
"We ain't going through this again," Crean said Thursday night behind that door at Conseco. "We're not going through this again."
A few moments later, you could hear Crean call his team together. Then came the chant, "1-2-3 Hoosiers."
Together at the beginning. Together at the end.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.
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