Originally posted on The Sports Bank  |  Last updated 12/10/11

The week leading up to the Indiana University basketball game against No. 1 Kentucky at 5:15 today at Assembly Hall has been, in actuality, a rather controversial one in Bloomington.

IU Athletics sustained a bit of a public relations hit in reprimanding a group of students who planned to camp out in front of Assembly Hall for the entire week so that the fans could be first in line for the student section’s best first-come, first-serve seats on game day. The group dubbed itself “Camp Crean.”

The move initially was aimed at preventing the group from setting up a tent as the “Occupy” movement has hit Bloomington hard and heavy, but the students stayed a bit longer into the week before being encouraged to return home with front-of-the-line vouchers courtesy of the school’s athletic department.

While this saga has sparked a good bit of debate among social media, the overarching message is undebatable: The fact students were willing to stay in front of the storied arena is clear evidence that the buzz surrounding Indiana Hoosiers basketball is back.

The history and tradition IU proudly boasts is well documented. Recently, however, the five-time NCAA champion program has been about as irrelevant as such a program can get.

The fallout from the violations of former coach Kelvin Sampson wiped the Hoosiers clean of any respectable returning talent for current head man Tom Crean, leaving the former Marquette coach with a bare cupboard when he took the job in April 2008. Crean’s first IU team — composed largely of freshmen and junior-college transfers — went 6-25. His next two teams went 10-21 and 12-20, respectively.

Now those freshmen who arrived with Crean are seniors — and mostly role players. That speaks to the quality of recruiting jobs Crean has done while in Bloomington despite hardly winning anything at all. And finally — finally – Crean is beginning to see the fruits of his labor with an 8-0 start this year.

These Hoosiers feel different. Probably because they are.

There’s sensational freshman forward Cody Zeller, widely believed to be the foundation for IU’s return to prominence. Zeller has lived up to that billing thus far, averaging 15.5 points and 7.5 rebounds for the Hoosiers. What’s more is that Zeller’s presence has made IU’s offense much more fluid. Shots both inside and outside have been easy for the team to come by with a disruptive big man it hasn’t had in years past.

There’s Christian Watford, the headliner of Crean’s first big recruiting class in 2009. Now a junior, Watford has continued to head several of IU’s scoring efforts while displaying much improvement on the defensive end.

There’s Victor Oladipo, a dynamic sophomore guard who has defied all previous stereotypes that he is a high-energy guy off the bench. Averaging 12.3 points and 2.0 steals per game, Oladipo arguably has been IU’s best player other than Zeller and has been dangerous on both ends of the floor.

There’s Bloomington native Jordan Hulls, who has come up big from the 3-point line in clutch situations time and again.

The depth these Hoosiers have is remarkable as well. Original Crean players Verdell Jones III, Tom Pritchard, Matt Roth and Daniel Moore all have seen their roles diminish to various extents, but they all have been more than serviceable in their new capacities.

IU has beaten all its opponents by double-digits — the smallest margin of victory was 16 against Butler — but today’s game arguably is one in which we’ll learn whether this depth and improvement is indeed legitimate.

Kentucky brings its typical John Calipari one-and-done arsenal to Assembly Hall. Headlining the Wildcats’ roster is freshman forward Anthony Davis, who unquestionably is the best big man Zeller will have faced to this point. Davis, who is considered a possible No. 1 pick in next summer’s NBA Draft, has extraordinary length and athleticism and will surely present a challenge to Zeller’s previous dominance of the paint.

Terrence Jones, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague and Doron Lamb are among the other weapons the nation’s top-ranked team will deploy. Kentucky should expect quite a challenge, however. This is the biggest game Assembly Hall has hosted in years. Fans have been itching to get inside the arena all week. The buzz is back at Indiana.

An improved Hoosiers roster plus the excitement surrounding this contest could keep this one close, and I actually don’t think too many people would be that surprised with a game that went down to the wire — or even a win for IU.


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