ED HIRT is a psychology professor at Indiana, but you might say that he moonlights as an anthropologist. Hirt has devoted years of research to the characteristics and customs of an idiosyncratic tribe: sports fans.
For one of his studies, Hirt observed fans watching their preferred team play a road game on television and then asked them a series of questions. He found that the subjects' moods were deeply affected by the performance of their team. No surprise, that. But Hirt's research also indicated that after a victory, fans were more confident about their social skills and sex appeal. They even had more faith in their ability to perform tasks, from shooting free throws to solving word puzzles. "The identity is so powerful," says Hirt, that "fans often see themselves through their team."
If that's the case, then Hirt is suddenly surrounded by self-styled lotharios and beauty queens, and his campus is crawling with boundlessly confident puzzle masters. To the delight of Hoosiers Nation, Indiana is the unlikely darling of this college basketball season. After winning at Penn State on Sunday, the No. 7--ranked Hoosiers stand proudly at 15--1. Greater still, this better-than-the-sum-of-its-parts collection of overachievers combines traditional Indiana basketball sensibilities with contemporary hoops—Hickory High meets the AAU summer circuit.
With the Indianapolis Colts coming off of a miserable 2--14 season (a mark still superior to the Indiana football team's brutal 1--11), the status of Peyton Manning in doubt and the Pacers improving but failing to captivate, the rebirth of IU basketball has been particularly welcome. As no less than John Mellencamp, the state's unofficial poet laureate, put it to a friend while sitting courtside for a recent Hoosiers game, "We're back, baby."
The Hoosiers play in a dowdy 41-year-old building quaintly named Assembly Hall. The players still wear those familiar candy-striped sweats as they go through the pregame layup line. From Albany to Zionsville, fans without tickets listen to the radio broadcasts of Don Fischer, who has been the voice of the Hoosiers for 39 years. Put simply: This is a tribe that values stability and tradition, a culture that doesn't do volatility well.
Which is why the saga of the past decade was particularly jarring. The whipsawing began in 2000 with the exile of longtime paterfamilias Bob Knight. Knight's successor, Mike Davis, was a thoroughly decent man who took Indiana to the NCAA championship game in '02, but his record was uneven and he came to resemble a politician never quite able to win over the base. Next came Kelvin Sampson, a down-market Jerry Tarkanian, who won plenty of games but whose reign was marked by players' drug use (according to former star guard Eric Gordon), abysmal academics and abundant "character issues." Sampson left in disgrace in '08 after his recruiting misconduct resulted in the first major sanctions against the Hoosiers by the NCAA since 1960.
The team lost fans in droves—student ticket orders alone fell by about 3,800, almost half the inventory. Former players disassociated themselves from the program. Even in Indiana, top recruits instinctively looked elsewhere. Broom and dustpan duties fell on Tom Crean, a Hercules (albeit a well-compensated one) tasked with cleaning the stables. Asked how he would restore the program's reputation, Crean parroted a two-word response as if it were a test-marketed catchphrase: It's Indiana. Translation: The program's lowly status was violating a law of the college basketball universe. "Looking back, we were in crisis mode," says Crean. "But the fans, the players, the base, they weren't going to let it stay down."
Still, Crean discovered that it's hard to rebuild without a foundation. Though he was careful to set low expectations, his teams failed to meet them. In his first three seasons the Hoosiers were a combined 28--66 and, as if they'd signed a noncompete agreement with the Big Ten, went 8--46 in the conference. This was almost unfathomable for a venerated program with five national championship banners hanging above the court. It's Indiana?
Hampered at first by fallout from the Sampson era—a raft of players transferred out, and recruiting was restricted under the NCAA sanctions—Crean fielded glorified jayvee teams with no credible center and with backcourt players who had the lateral quickness of chain-gang members. "That first year it was like, What's going to happen next?" recalls Crean. "I mean, we had walk-on tryouts in December, over Christmas break, again in January. 'Hey, you can get us a bucket? Maybe help with a defensive stop? You're on the team!' That was the reality."
On the recruiting trail there were modest successes but also tantalizing maybes that became painful nos. (Kyrie Irving, who would become the No. 1 pick of the 2011 NBA draft, flirted with IU but chose Duke.) Adding injury to insult, swingman Maurice Creek, a top Crean recruit, broke his left patella as a freshman in '09 and suffered a stress fracture of his other patella as a sophomore. Then, in October, negotiating the stairs of his apartment, Creek slipped and ruptured his left Achilles tendon. He hasn't played since. "Every time we were close, something bad would happen," says Crean. "When you're not winning games and you're working hard, you can get wiped out. Any leader who says he doesn't have self-doubt from time to time isn't telling the truth."
The coach would have been within his rights to curse the basketball gods. He might even have been within his rights to bail for another job. But he stayed true to his word (and contract), hardly a given in today's college sports climate, and soldiered on. He worked the state like a candidate running for office, winning back supporters and inviting former players to attend practices and games and address the team. Crean's squads, stocked as they were with likable kids who went to class, avoided the criminal-justice system and competed with unstinting effort, were winning fans if not games.
And then the Fates changed their tune. The Hoosiers won their first eight games of the 2011--12 season. On Dec. 10 junior forward Christian Watford drilled a three-pointer at the buzzer as Indiana beat top-ranked Kentucky. Keith Smart didn't induce this much fanfare. Delirious fans—including what now purports to be the largest student section in the country—covered the court, and a video of fans' reaction at Nick's, the popular on-campus bar, was a YouTube sensation. This was catharsis.
If there was no single moment of reckoning during the turnaround, there were a few critical plot points. Last year Crean landed Cody Zeller, a 6'11" McDonald's All-American center from Washington, Ind. Zeller's oldest brother, Luke, played at Notre Dame, and his other brother, Tyler, is a senior forward at North Carolina. But Cody stayed close to home, lured, he says, as much by Indiana's business program as by the basketball program.
Jared Fogle, the svelte Subway spokesman, may be a regular at Indiana games (his sister-in-law, Beth McLaughlin, is Crean's secretary), but Zeller pulled an anti-Jared last summer, adding 15 pounds of muscle mass to his frame. The result: a deceptively rugged player and Indiana's first legitimate center in years. On defense he can hold his own (on New Year's Eve, Zeller limited Ohio State All-America Jared Sullinger to three field goals in Indiana's 74--70 upset of the No. 2 Buckeyes), and on offense he can score in the post and open the floor for his teammates—not least junior guard Jordan Hulls, a Bloomington native who struggles to create his own shot but might be the best pure shooter in the college game. (Hulls hits 58.2% from three-point range and 86.7% from the charity stripe.)
Indiana also benefited from the emergence of the two-headed monster known to teammates as SheilaDepot: sophomores Will Sheehey and Victor Oladipo. At first blush the two could scarcely seem more different. Sheehey, a forward, is a Jake Gyllenhaal look-alike from Florida whose father, Mike, played for Syracuse and is an executive at Comcast. Oladipo, a guard, is the son of Nigerian immigrants and grew up in the D.C. suburbs. But the two were roommates last year in McNutt Residence Center and found they shared plenty: tastes, temperament and having twin sisters.
As players both are superbly athletic, and both detest losing—so much so that they stayed in Bloomington during the summer to work on improving. "Running stadium steps, lifting, shooting, positioning drills, conditioning," says Sheehey. "You name it, we did it." The legacy of the hard work: Oladipo is averaging 11.4 points, and Sheehey was averaging 10.7 before he was sidelined in late December with a left ankle injury.
The source of Oladipo's intensity and industriousness is obvious. His father, Chris, who came to the U.S. in 1986, works three jobs to provide for his wife and four children. When Victor was in high school, Chris suggested that he spend a summer not playing AAU ball but learning martial arts and improving his discipline—in China. (Victor chose hoops instead.) Chris is indifferent to basketball, seldom watching his son play, even on television. "My mom is into it," says Victor, "but my dad? He doesn't really know anything or get that excited about basketball."
Which puts him at odds with Indiana fans. They're thrilled by the present and giddy about the future. Crean and his staff have secured one of the strongest incoming recruiting classes, rated No. 2 in the country by some services and led by Yogi Ferrell, a quicksilver point guard from Indianapolis; Hanner Perea, an athletic forward from La Porte, Ind.; and Peter Jurkin, a 7-footer from North Carolina who plays, hilariously, for a team coached by Muggsy Bogues. It falls to Crean to guard the optimism. "We're absolutely committed to not going back to where [we were]," he says, "but we're also committed to not getting ahead of ourselves. If I've learned anything, it's that you'd better stay true to the process."
Meanwhile, Chris Oladipo has a standing invitation to attend a game. He'll see that his son is an entertaining player whose surprisingly strong team has restored dignity to a storied program. If that's not inducement enough, odds are that following these Hoosiers will give Chris a new confidence in his ability to solve word puzzles.
CREAN'S TEAMS, STOCKED AS THEY WERE WITH LIKABLE KIDS WHO WENT TO CLASS AND COMPETED WITH UNSTINTING EFFORT, WERE WINNING FANS.
Photograph by ANDREW HANCOCK
IN THE SPOTLIGHT The Hoosiers' national profile loomed ever larger as they followed their upset of then top-ranked Kentucky with big home wins over Ohio State and Michigan.
PAT LOVELL/CAL SPORT MEDIA (WATFORD)
CREAN AND CRIMSON With Zeller (40) in the Indiana team colors, the Hoosiers' coach (near left) finally has a true center to complement perimeter threats such as Oladipo (4) and Watford (2).
Photographs by ANDREW HANCOCK
[See caption above]