Indiana University basketball head coach Tom Crean was brought aboard in 2008 to rebuild a Hoosier program that was left in ruins by the scandalous reign of Kelvin Sampson. Starting with a barren roster with walk-ons and transfers at key positions, Crean had an understandably long grace period with which he could build the program back up without worrying too much about results.
Well, it's three years later and things are about to get real in a hurry. While Indiana basketball has no doubt improved under Crean since he took over, the Hoosiers still haven't come close to an NCAA birth or even a spot in the NIT. IU actually won less Big Ten matches last season than they did in 2010, and now with the addition of McDonald's All-American Cody Zeller, expectations will be ramped up considerably.
Zeller isn't the only addition, however. Along with fellow incoming freshmen forward Austin Etherington and guard Remy Abell, there is considerable addition by non-subtraction. Key 2011 contributors Christian Watford, Jordan Hulls and Verdell Jones are all back and ready to finally make the big leap than Indiana fans have been waiting for.
Indiana are more experienced than they've ever been under Crean, but there's considerable competition standing in between the Hoosiers and their first trip to the big dance since 2008. After a five pack of warm-up matches made up of games versus Stoney Brook, Chattanooga, Evansville, Savannah State and Gardner-Webb, IU faces their first real test on November 27 when two-time national runner-up Butler comes to town.
Butler lost Shelvin Mack (NBA), Matt Howard and Shawn Vanzant (graduation) in the off-season, making this game more than winnable for IU. That doesn't make it any less important though. A showdown with a nationally recognized program will be a good way for the revamped Hooisers to show they are serious about making the NCAA tourney.
It doesn't get any easier for Indiana after that. Later in the week the Hoosiers head to Raleigh to take on NC State in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. That will be the season's first road game outside the state and it should be a tough one given that the Wolfpack is also a young team looking to regain national prominence.
After that, Indiana has a home game vs. Kentucky on December 10 before playing Notre Dame in Indianapolis' Conseco Fieldhouse on December 17. That makes four key games before Big Ten play starts that could determine Indiana's postseason fate.
While Kentucky lost nearly everyone to the NBA last season, John Calipari is very effective at reloading his squad quickly and should give Indiana a challenge. Without departing senior Ben Hansbrough, Notre Dame is a collection of middling talent. They won't scare the Hoosiers with their athleticism, but they won't give the game away with mistakes either.
On to the Big Ten! After home dates with Howard and UMBC, Indiana invades East Lansing to open conference play versus Michigan State on December 28. The conference home opener is on New Years Eve when Ohio State visits Bloomington.
Indiana only has to play Wisconsin once, but the game will take place in Madison. They also only fight the Illini once this season, despite the intense battle over who has the REAL Assembly Hall. That game will be played in the Assembly Hall in Bloomington on February 9.
Indiana was not spared many favors by the schedule, as the other teams that they only play once are Nebraska on the road and Northwestern at home. Of course, the rival Purdue Boilermakers are on the schedule twice. Indiana will visit West Lafayette on February 4 and then host Purdue on March 4 for the last game of the regular season.
With the success of fellow Indiana residents Purdue, Butler and Notre Dame (not to mention Indiana State), the Hoosiers have fallen surprisingly in the ranks within their own state. This season, with a lot of returning experience and a prized recruit coming in, Indiana has a chance to once again be the best team in the state. There will certainly be ample opportunities to prove it.
Click here for the full IU basketball schedule.