ATLANTA -- Let me tell you a story.
It’s a story involving 17 young men, their head coach, his three assistants and a staff to support them.
Together, they would become one, shock the nation, restore faith to a historic basketball program and share in one of the most unforgettable experiences of their lives — all in the course of 36 games crammed into 4.5 months.
“This team is unbelievable,” junior forward Derek Elston said. “This team is one big family. We’ll get at each other, we’ll go at each other every day, but it’s all in good heart. These guys have worked so hard all year and to fall short like we did today, it just hurts.”
An incredible journey ended Friday, as the fourth-seeded Hoosiers fell 102-90 to No.1 Kentucky in the Sweet 16.
“It was unbelievable, what this group of guys has accomplished,” Elston said. “We really thought we should be headed to New Orleans. Obviously that didn’t happen, but these guys still feel like that was our goal.”
They were never supposed to be this good.
Unranked in every preseason poll, IU was bringing back all but one player from an ugly 12-20 season, in addition to a three-man recruiting class highlighted by the anointed savior of the program, Cody Zeller.
It was supposed to be enough for a mere step in the right direction. Good enough for the National Invitational Tournament and maybe — just maybe — a return to the Big Dance.
The schedule came out and outside of an always-brutal Big Ten schedule, the biggest tests looked to be Butler, NC State, Notre Dame and the sure loss to Kentucky.
Indiana would finish its nonconference regular season schedule 13-0. In the Big Ten, Coach Crean’s squad finished fifth with an 11-7 conference record, two games back of first place.
For the first time in the program’s history, the Hoosiers defeated three top-5 teams in a single season.
“Coming into it, I don’t think people thought we were going to be as good as we were,” sophomore guard Victor Oladipo said. “We knew we were going to be good, but sometimes I don’t think we knew we were going to be as good as we were.”
It was the element of surprise.
That is what made this team special. That is what made this team memorable. That is what made the 2011-2012 Hoosiers so enjoyable to watch.
Every week, every game was a new adventure. You just never knew if the Hoosiers would make you fall in love with them, as they did in wins against the Big Ten’s best, or leave you crestfallen in puzzling defeats against Minnesota, Nebraska and Iowa.
In hindsight, expectations were so low — and justifiably realistic — for the Hoosiers to start the year, that this entire season has been one big surpassed expectation.
How did this happen? Sure, Zeller made a huge difference, but every player improved and showed the country that IU could return to greatness with the pieces it already had.
What changed all of a sudden?
“The togetherness,” Oladipo answered. “The togetherness of this team is amazing. I’m not saying other teams in the past weren’t as together, but this team right here — we’re inseparable. We’ve just grown so much together. We love each other to death.”
Senior forward Kory Barnett said putting in the hours ultimately paid dividends.
“All along, we knew that we were the hardest working team,” Barnett said. “Many people doubted us, maybe the media was against us, but as a team, we knew we worked harder than anybody else in the entire nation. We expected to be the last ones standing because the hardest workers should be there, but it’s not always that way.”
No, Friday, the story didn’t have a fairytale ending.
In a college basketball world becoming increasingly polluted with student-athletes playing a season in college that acts as a one-year stepping stone to big bucks in the NBA, the Hoosiers were a story you could get behind.
This was a group of young men, battered and beaten by three years of losing and injuries, who were genuinely playing for the name on the front of the jersey. Except for their star freshman, whose future remains full of opportunities, these Hoosiers has no intention of leaving school because, frankly, they weren’t talented enough to leave.
But that’s what made their climb all the more compelling.
“There's no doubt that there's some great lessons for our team all year long, but the biggest one is that the more that you stick with it, the harder you work, the more extra you do, the more you persevere, great things can happen,” Crean said Thursday.
After losing to Kentucky, sophomore forward Will Sheehey sat on a chair in front of his locker, located in a far corner. His back leaned forward and simply stared into the plain grey wall to his left.
The answers wouldn’t be there.
There he couldn’t find out why the Hoosiers had scored more points against Kentucky then any other team has this season … and still lost.
Or why IU gave up 102 points to a team that normally averages 77. The only team that came close to scoring that many points on the Hoosiers was Iowa, which racked up 89 in a loss.
Even more perplexing, how did the Wildcats knock down 35-of-37 free throws, the highest percentage (94.6) in an NCAA Tournament game for any team with at least 30 foul shot attempts?
Sheehey or any of the other Hoosiers in that locker room, who shared welled-up eyes matching the red of their jerseys, wouldn’t be able to find any easy answers about what had just occurred in the Georgia Dome.
The short-term was hazy, but what this group had done in the long run, was crystal clear.
“We were the foundation,” Barnett said. “For the rest of my life, we’re always going to have that — that we were the foundation that was set here for Coach Crean, for this team and hopefully for the future for many banners and wins to come. To be those five, we were blessed. It didn’t always seem that way, but I’m proud of all these guys. I’m proud of what we’ve done. I’m proud of what we’ve given.”
Next season, IU will be more talented. They’ll go from frequently picked-against underdog, to a probable top-10 preseason ranking. Winning will be expected, and because of that, it just won’t be the same.
“We might do better next year, but you always remember this team and what we’ve done to bring this program back,” Elston said.
The media is often charged with conjuring up a name by which history can refer to memorable teams or seasons, but this time, I think our work has already been done for us.
“I think it will be the resurrection season,” Elston said. “I think that might be the title it ends up going down in.”