Commentary

IU's fresh faces offer hope for fans

Originally Published: October 21, 2009
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Jordan Hulls grew up at the knee of Indiana basketball.

His grandfather, John, was an assistant coach for Bobby Knight during the 1970s.

[+] EnlargeJordan Hulls
AP Photo/Timothy D. EasleyBloomington native Jordan Hulls is well-versed in Hoosier history.

His father, J.C., spent time as a student manager.

The Hulls family roots still stick in Bloomington, where Jordan led Bloomington South High School to a perfect record and the 2009 state championship.

So when the Hoosiers' wheels came spinning off amid Kelvin Sampson's NCAA investigation and punishment, Hulls had more than a front-row seat to the disaster; he had perspective.

"It was pretty tough to watch this team go through everything that happened," Hulls said. "There's so much pride here. It really hurt a lot of people, and it took a while to get over it for some people. They just took it all to heart."

Yet knowing what he knew firsthand -- just how far Indiana had fallen and just how much work it would take to rebuild it -- Hulls didn't hesitate when it came time to choose a college.

He asked for some candy-striped pants.

"For me, it's been a lifelong dream," he said.

But what about Maurice Creek, who grew up in Maryland? Or Christian Watford, who is from football-loving Alabama? Or Bobby Capobianco, an Ohioan? Or Bawa Muniru, who comes to Indiana from Ghana via Mt. Zion Academy in Durham, N.C.? Or Derek Elston, an Indiana native who honored the commitment he had made to IU before all hell broke loose?

All of them -- as well as Hulls -- could have played somewhere else. Alabama, Memphis, Pittsburgh, Miami are just some of the schools that once stood on their collective wish lists.

So why bother? Why sign on with a program that is just laying the first bricks of rebuilding?

"We're going to hang banners and win awards before we leave here," Elston said. "But we're also going to change the program. We're going to be the team people talk about for a long time, the ones that brought Indiana back. That's something a lot of people don't get the chance to do."

There is a tangible feeling among this freshman class, a sense that these players are shouldering the hopes and expectations of a once-mighty program.

It's asking a lot. They're just kids, without an inkling of what college basketball really will be like.

But when Hoosiers coach Tom Crean went out to find the pieces to begin rebuilding his roundball phoenix, he targeted a certain kind of kid.

OK, for starters, he wanted good players. That was helpful, and he got them. Creek played in the Reebok All-American game; Watford is listed as No. 26 in the ESPNU top 100; Hulls was an Indiana Mr. Basketball.

More than that, Crean wanted kids with strong character, the kind who wouldn't hang their heads when things got tough and wouldn't be overwhelmed by the expectations of a fan base patiently waiting to get back to the business of winning.

It took just one weekend's worth of practice to assure Crean he has the right guys.

"The talent level is different than last year, but it's more than that," he said. "We probably didn't have three or four practices all last year that had the duration of competitiveness we had here this weekend. There was a real spirit, too. It was hard-earned competition. There was even a skirmish, and then they walked off together at the end. I like that. I like seeing that."

A year ago Indiana was the little engine that could, a painful comedown for a program used to being in the national conversation. The Hoosiers won just six games last season and finished 1-17 in the Big Ten.

[+] EnlargeMaurice Creek
AJ Mast/Icon SMIMaurice Creek came in at No. 71 in the ESPNU 100 for the Class of '09.

It would be unreasonable to think things will change on a dime this season. These Hoosiers are better -- more talented and deeper. But only two players on the entire roster -- Devan Dumes and Jeremiah Rivers -- have played more than one season of college basketball, and Rivers played sparingly at Georgetown before transferring.

Add in the fact that the Big Ten is running alongside the Big 12 as the premier conferences in the country, and it would be flat-out silly to pencil Indiana in for a postseason tournament.

As much as Crean -- whom Capobianco accurately tagged as "naturally caffeinated" -- wants to restore things yesterday, the fact is that although Indiana may have been deconstructed in a few hours' worth of NCAA meetings, it won't be rebuilt nearly as quickly.

"I'm in a rush, and that's not good," Crean said.

This is not the team to soak in the glory of success restored. This is the team that will put IU on the path.

And the Hoosiers are just fine with that, which is what really makes them remarkable. In a win-now, talk-to-me-later world, the freshman class has an uncommon grasp on understanding the process.

"We know eventually we can be that team, but for now, we've got to take our time," Creek said. "It won't happen overnight."

That, of course, isn't to say Indiana is walking into any gym with a gee-willikers, glad-to-be-here attitude.

Hardly.

"I know this: We won't be scared or intimidated by anyone," Capobianco said. "We won't be out there with pee running down our legs. We want to be the team where people are sitting in the stands thinking, 'How in the world are they winning this game?' We want that stunned silence, like people can't believe what they're seeing."

What no one could quite believe he was seeing last season was the people in Assembly Hall. The Hoosiers averaged 14,331 fans per game, 16th-best among all Division I programs in the country.

For a team that won six games.

And at the end of the day, those are the 14,331 reasons these players chose Indiana.

"You can't understand what this team means to people if you haven't lived here," Hulls said. "It's impossible, but that's why we all wanted to come here. It's the responsibility to rebuild this program."

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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