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COLUMN

New era takes shape in Bloomington

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For more on sports commentary, follow Reggie Hayes via Twitter at reggiehayes1.

Crean's rebuilding effort has national spotlight on Hoosiers

Thursday, November 8, 2012 - 12:01 am

While contemplating this year's likely incredible men's college basketball season, I pondered two odd thoughts:

Can you imagine if Twitter had been around when Bob Knight coached at Indiana University? And can you imagine if Knight had used a Twitter account?

We'd all be following @TheGeneral.

No, I can't really imagine that, either, although I would have liked to have written a Knight quote using “#expletive.”

The landscape has transformed since the glory days of IU, when Knight ruled with his vast knowledge and iron fist and the Hoosiers won three national titles along with the hearts of all parts of the state not wearing black and gold.

Today, IU coach Tom Crean is all over Twitter, offering tidbits on his team, Bible verses and inspirational sayings, and generally coming across as the ultimate modern-day coach. Except for that one time he accidentally tweeted a love note to a recruit, he's turned social media into his advantage.

Proving there is more than one way to the top, Crean has IU ranked No. 1 and entering this season as the favorite to win another national championship.

It's hardly news that Crean has done an unbelievable job in transforming IU back into a power after inheriting a program decimated by the embarrassment of the Kevin Sampson error. We're well into the full-bloom portion of Crean's masterwork.

But the fact that he has a potential national championship team promises to return national focus to Indiana, the Big Ten and our basketball backyard. College hoops are more fun when our local teams are in the hunt.

IU is out in front, but Purdue is building with youth again, Notre Dame is prepping for its future switch to the Atlantic Coast Conference and Butler is primed to be that postseason darling if all goes right. Ohio State, with Fort Wayne's Deshaun Thomas an All-American, is one to watch. I've even heard Ball State might be relevant, but couldn't confirm at press time.

Everything starts with the Hoosiers. Are they really that good, or will they just hold the top spot until John Calipari takes the latest baby-faced recruits and turns Kentucky into its usual buzz saw?

The Hoosiers are that good.

They gave Kentucky one of its most difficult games in the NCAA Tournament as an encore to the legendary Christian Watford-fueled upset win at Assembly Hall in the regular season. They've upgraded talent since then. The Hoosiers were so close to being in Kentucky's league that the schools immediately started bickering over whether to keep the series alive. Bad blood on the border. You gotta love that.

Cody Zeller is everybody's All-American, and justifiably so. Credit his older brothers for helping to mold him into a force. You know they had to have beaten the toughness into him on the court. Zeller is deceptively quick, with great hands, almost impossible to slow inside and unselfish enough that those round him routinely thrive.

But there are so many other terrific players, Crean might develop a new psychosis: substitution anxiety. Playing time will be at a premium.

Watford is back, along with Victor Oladipo, Jordan Hulls and Will Sheehey. Maurice Creek has been sighted, believe it or not. Anyone doubt the most popular new chant will be “Yo-gi! Yo-gi! Yo-gi!” as Yogi Ferrell steps in as a freshman phenom?

It'll be fascinating to watch Indiana play with a target on its back. There's a difference between being the up-and-coming, returning-to-glory program and being the team to beat. But Crean and his staff have handled worse stress – being the Big Ten's worst team, for example – so expect the staff to craft the necessary approach.

I remember not too long ago when the popular national media take was that IU basketball coaching job was no longer an elite one. The idea was that the Hoosiers' prominence had been the singular work of Knight and they'd never regain that stature.

That idea discredited the achievements of Branch McCracken before Knight, for starters, but it also underestimated the passion IU basketball fans brought and their desire to see the return to the big time.

Recruits are now lining up to play at IU, and that should grow if some of the current players, such as Zeller and Watford, move on to become relevant NBA players. Most talented players want playing time and a chance at the pros.

Crean is building a pipeline to those players while also embracing the type of Hoosiers who will likely go into another business after college. He's re-established the idea of Indiana basketball as a “team” program with parts that make the whole that much better.

There's a long, long season ahead, one no doubt filled with unexpected speed bumps.

But Crean has put IU in position to make a run at the ultimate Twitter hashtagged word: #Champions.