IOWA CITY — National championship banners hang on one end of Indiana’s Assembly Hall as an intimidating reminder that Big Ten basketball tradition starts here.
Iowa doesn’t boast the national titles, but 10 seasons ago the Hawkeyes were among the most tradition-rich Big Ten schools after the Hoosiers. Before the 2005-06 season, the Hawkeyes had 21 official NCAA tournament bids, third behind Indiana and Illinois at that time. In 2010, Sagarin designed a historic statistical rating where the Hoosiers were fifth and the Hawkeyes 10th all-time.
But both programs cratered for different — but equally punishing — reasons in the last decade. And both were reborn methodically with hard work and tireless recruiting. Indiana reached No. 1 in the 2012-13 season. Iowa currently sits No. 4 in the latest Associated Press poll. Both teams are within a game of the Big Ten lead entering Thursday’s showdown at Assembly Hall (8 p.m. ESPN).
“There’s a lot of similarities,” Iowa center Adam Woodbury said. “They continued to build their program up from where they were obviously. We kind of followed that same path, continued to improve every year and now we’ve kind of made a bigger step than any year so far.”
Indiana fired Kelvin Sampson in 2008 after he committed multiple NCAA infractions while already on probation. Then Indiana endured a wave of transfers and departure, and newly hired Coach Tom Crean brought back only one scholarship player the next year. The proud program was decimated and suffered three consecutive losing seasons from 2008-09 through 2010-11. Indiana’s record was 28-66 overall and 8-46 in Big Ten play.
“There’s rebuilding, then there’s what we’ve been doing for the last three years and that comes at a really bad time when you have the league as strong as it’s been over a period of years,” Crean told The Gazette in 2011. “All you can do is keep strong on what you’re trying to do daily and make sure that you never get away from the plan, the blueprint, the vision that you have for the future. You can’t live too far into the future, but you have to make sure that you know that you’re building for it.”
“That was about as bad as it’s ever been, I think,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said about the situation dealt to Crean.
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Crean meticulously rebuilt Indiana with both blue-chip recruits and eventual NBA players like center Cody Zeller and those he turned into blue-chippers like guard Victor Oladipo. Indiana returned to the NCAA tournament in 2012 with a 27-9 record. The Hoosiers won the Big Ten regular-season title a year later and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Last year, Indiana qualified for the tournament for the third time in four years.
From one scholarship returnee to Big Ten champion in five years was an impressive journey, even for a basketball program blessed with resources like Indiana.
“It’s hard when you have a rabid fan base like they do,” McCaffery said. “It’s a phenomenal atmosphere to play college basketball. I’ve been going down there for years. I think it’s a sophisticated fan base, like I’ve said about ours. They know basketball, and they’ve seen great basketball, and they appreciate it. But he had a steep road, and he really has done a phenomenal job,
“They just stayed the course, and I think that’s what he’s done a really good job of. You’ve got to stay the course. You’ve got to stay true to your values, and I think he’s done that, and that’s why they’re sitting where they are.”
Iowa’s problems began when polarizing Coach Steve Alford — an Indiana legend, no less — left the Hawkeyes for New Mexico in 2007. Iowa replaced Alford with national coach of the year Todd Lickliter, who twice guided Butler to the Sweet Sixteen. Lickliter’s program lacked overall talent when he took over and it became worse when nine players with eligibility transferred from Iowa in his three seasons. The Hawkeyes finished 38-58 under Lickliter, including 15-39 in Big Ten play. Iowa bottomed out in 2010 with a 10-22 record, and Lickliter was fired. McCaffery took over as Iowa’s coach 17 days later.
The Hawkeyes’ climb was steady. In McCaffery’s second year, Iowa gained an NIT spot. The next year, the Hawkeyes advanced to the NIT finals. In 2014, McCaffery’s squad earned an NCAA tournament bid for the first time in eight seasons. Last year, the Hawkeyes ended a 14-year drought with an NCAA victory.
This season, Iowa (19-4) is ranked fourth by the Associated Press and leads the Big Ten with a 10-1 record. The Hawkeyes have a chance to sew up their first Big Ten regular-season title since 1979.
“I don’t know that there’s anything magical to it other than if you recruit good kids that work hard and believe in each other that you can win, even against the teams in this league, which is not easy,” McCaffery said.
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It’s almost surprising how far and how fast each program has risen since their desolate days. In Crean’s first season, the Hoosiers finished 1-17 in Big Ten play but their only win came against Iowa. In 2010, amid Iowa’s worst season in school history, the Hawkeyes ended a school-record 15-game road losing streak by blowing out Indiana 58-43 at Assembly Hall.
Now both teams are ranked and within one game of the Big Ten lead.
“It all comes together somehow, some way,” Woodbury said.
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