Proud program devastated by rule-breaking and exodus of players becomes a basketball embarrassment. With championships deferred indefinitely, new coach fashions a plucky underdog team that wins the heart of its devoted fans.
It seems Indiana basketball has descended to the nether regions occupied by Kentucky in 1989-90. But Coach Tom Crean sees his Hoosiers facing an even steeper road back to dominance.
"They had a little more experience," he said on a Thursday teleconference of UK's 1989-90 team.
True enough. In forming the team lovingly called Pitino's Bombinos, Rick Pitino had players who had scored 977 points the season before. That included Derrick Miller, Reggie Hanson, Deron Feldhaus, Richie Farmer, John Pelphrey, Sean Woods and Johnathon Davis.
Indiana's returning players scored 30 points.
Yet, Crean wants the Hoosiers to play with the same zeal exhibited by the Bombinos.
"If people were to ever say we competed as hard as Rick Pitino's team did those first couple years, I don't think our program could get a greater compliment," Indiana's first-year coach said. "... That was one of the greatest stories in my time following college basketball."
Competing (taking charges, diving on the floor, etc.) seems to be at the heart of Indiana basketball more than ever. With nine scholarship players, six walk-ons and six of its top seven scorers being freshmen, the Hoosiers are not equipped to dominate.
"It's weird," one of the returnees, Kyle Taber, said of Indiana's predicament. "Last year, I played with guys who made your job a lot easier. This year, we have to rely on each other as a team more, which is a good thing because you win as a team. It's definitely weird and different, but I think we're going to be all right."
Also weird is the thought of an Indiana team receiving a standing ovation as it left the court after a 16-point loss. But that's what happened after the Hoosiers lost to Gonzaga.
"It means a lot to us," Taber said. "Our fans have been real supportive all year, so far. So after a 16-point loss, it's an incredible feeling to know our fans have our back, no matter what. As long as we lay it all on the line for them, they'll be there backing up up the whole time."
Crean saw the ovation as a sign of a dynasty, though dormant, that can re-emerge.
"It says a lot what Hoosier Nation is all about and that they respect that this team is coming out and fighting hard and trying to represent the uniform the right way," Crean said. "Because if there's one thing Indiana fans and Kentucky fans understand, (it's that) there have been a lot of really, really good players who worked very hard to represent those uniforms."
Like the Bombinos, Indiana's hustle and effort doesn't translate into victories away from home. Indiana, 5-4, has won away from Bloomington only once: a victory over Chaminade in the seventh-place game in the EA Sports Maui Invitational.
Crean saluted his team for its ability to listen and its willingness to be coached. As Taber noted, the Hoosiers won't overwhelm teams with talent.
"The main thing is just to play hard," Taber said. "You have to play harder every possession and longer than the other team. With that, you have to play smart. If you do those two things, that's the best way to make up for a lack of talent."
Indiana's troubles take the glitter off the annual game against Kentucky. The usual tension of the old United States-USSR standoff is missing. Even with UK retooling under second-year coach Billy Gillispie, Saturday's game has the feel of Great Britain and Argentina fighting over the Falkland Islands.
"Billy gets results," Crean said of Gillispie. "He gets things done. He runs a very strong program. They cover all facets.
"I like to think as we get better, as we get older, more experienced and put some recruiting classes together and build it, we'll be part of this great rivalry (again)."
Ramon Harris no longer wears the cervical collar he needed after a head-to-head collision with teammate Michael Porter. Harris's mother, Carmen Bowles, said her son took off the collar after being examined by doctors earlier this week. Harris has not returned to practice and probably would not play against Indiana, his mother said.
Elsewhere on the injury front, IU freshman Verdell Jones III has returned to non-contact drills after sustaining a concussion against Cornell. He missed the last three games. His status for the Kentucky game was unclear, Crean said.