PORTLAND — With three minutes remaining in the game, and his team’s chances of beating Virginia Commonwealth about to disintegrate, Indiana coach Tom Crean calmed his players by referencing a win from three months earlier.
It had come against North Carolina State, which had the Hoosiers in a similar position before Indiana scored 30 of the next 42 points on the way to an 11-point victory.
So feeling like the guys needed to be reminded of their capabilities, Crean gave a quick history lecture.
“That’s when guys started getting excited,” Hoosiers center Derek Elston said. “When he brought up that game, everyone just got pumped.”
As well they should have.
As it stands, Crean is Indiana’s leading authority on comebacks.
Saturday, the Hoosiers advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 10 years by downing VCU 63-61 at the Rose Garden. Two days earlier, they played in their first NCAA Tournament game since 2008.
If one year is seven in dog years, it’s 70 in Indiana-missed-the-Tournament years. Simply unacceptable for hoops’ holy land.
When Crean came to Bloomington four years ago, he inherited a program disgraced by former coach Kelvin Sampson’s recruiting violations. What followed were records of 6-25, 10-21 and 12-20.
At a school like Indiana, that’s a letdown on par with the Super Bowl finishing sixth in the weekend Nielsen ratings.
This wasn’t the school with five national championships anymore — it was the school just hoping for five wins in the Big Ten.
“There was no way to put it in context when we first started. Really, what I thought I knew about Indiana and the Indiana that I would have imagined, that wasn’t what it was at the time,” Crean said. “We had to make sure that we kept (the fans) with us, because we were starting to get a feel day after day that this was going to be really hard.”
So recruiting became the program’s primary focus and wins began to slowly — very slowly — trickle in. Then this year came along, and the victories stampeded in.
The Hoosiers matched last season’s win total by Dec. 22, when a win over Maryland-Baltimore County put them at 12-0 on the year. Their 11-7 conference record featured three more Big Ten wins than they had combined in the previous three seasons.
Three months ago, they beat top-ranked Kentucky — their next opponent — and came into the NCAA Tournament as a No. 4 seed with 25 wins.
Crean said in a press conference that outside expectations do not drive his team. But he has also repeatedly brought up the fact that the national media were reluctant to believe in his program.
A Sports Illustrated writer predicted Indiana would fail to reach the Sweet 16 when the brackets were revealed on Selection Sunday, and ESPN’s Hubert Davis guessed on national TV that VCU would get the win Saturday.
The doubt has served as a motivating tool throughout the season, and while the Hoosiers have defied the naysayers, nobody understood the initial skepticism better than Crean.
“Back to the beginning of the year, it wasn’t anybody that picked us to be here, let alone fourth seed, let alone winning 25 games,” Crean said. “They’re (the players) are like anybody else. When they’re doubted, when they’re criticized, I’m sure they’re going to take that to heart. We’ll have our times when we throw that out there.”
And when it comes to next year, most pundits doubt that there will be much doubt.
Indiana sophomore Victor Oladipo said that Crean “believes in us more than anybody I know.” Freshman Remy Abell thinks Crean is “a future Hall of Fame coach.” When asked why he wanted to play for Crean, Elston said that, considering his charisma and energy, “Why wouldn’t I?”
And it is that very appeal that has helped the Hoosiers land one of the top recruiting classes in the nation. Might even make potential NBA lottery pick Cody Zeller want to stick around.
But in the same way that Indiana has moved on from its past, it is also holding off on looking to the future. Case in point: Hoosiers senior Tom Pritchard.
Four years ago, the center signed with Indiana when Sampson was in charge, and honored his commitment despite the fallout.
Sitting in front of his locker after Saturday’s win, Pirtchard praised the work of his current coach and soaked in a moment he thought might never come.
“Coach called me as soon as he got here and we started our relationship from there,” Pritchard said. “I loved IU, I loved the basketball program, and I decided to stay with it. It’s finally paid off.”