BLOOMINGTON | Jordan Hulls walks into Assembly Hall wearing a T-shirt that reads "How Sweet It Is," a phrase intended to celebrate Indiana's return to the NCAA tournament regional semifinals last spring.
This fall, those words have a whole new meaning.
After spending three years in the abyss and another year trying to prove themselves, the Hoosiers are ranked No. 1 and squarely in the discussion about the national championship.
Indiana is back. Finally.
"It could be a really special year and everybody is anxious to start seeing what this team is capable of," junior guard Victor Oladipo said with his usual exuberance. "It's the stuff you dream about, trying to chase this one goal that everyone is trying to chase."
Outsiders certainly believe Indiana has the combination to do that this season.
For the first time since 1979-80, and only the third time in school history, the Hoosiers open this season ranked No. 1. Sophomore center Cody Zeller is the early favorite to be the Big Ten player of the year, and the campaigning to make him this year's national player of the year is in full swing, too. Indiana basketball tickets are again one of the hottest items in the state.
Don't believe it?
Eager fans are so excited about this season they filled every seat inside Assembly Hall for an open practice Oct. 20 two hours before it began. Coach Tom Crean apologized to those who were turned away.
"It makes you appreciate winning that much more," said Hulls, a senior guard and one of the team leaders. "But it is kind of crazy to think about how far we've come."
Crean was hired in April 2008 to clean things up after an embarrassing NCAA phone-call scandal tainted the school's pristine image and gutted the roster. He promised to restore the program's image, its national prestige and to win championships with a team that would make everyone proud.
Nobody expected the long road back to be easy, least of all Crean, who had only two returning players, both walk-ons, in that first season.
Crean remembers it well. Indiana crashed to 6-25, losing to the likes of Lipscomb and barely avoided losing to Division II school Chaminade in the seventh-place game at the Maui Invitational. It was ugly.
"We had no leadership that year," Crean said. "You look around pro and college sports, you take the leader out of a business and the business will be affected. Now you take the leadership out of a program, and the players don't have anyone to look up to, nobody who's been through that. We had to grow into that. We could have signed junior college kids, but it wouldn't have made any difference because they hadn't been through Indiana and neither had we."
While Hulls was busy winning the state's 2009 Mr. Basketball Award, he watched disbelievingly as his hometown school tumbled.
When Crean offered him a chance to be part of the solution, Hulls couldn't pass it up.
Crean gave the same sales pitch same everywhere he went: Come to Indiana and you'll get playing time right away, maybe start, become part of something bigger than themselves, earn a degree from a highly-respected institution and forever be known in Hoosiers lore as part of the group that rebuilt Indiana basketball.
"I remember the dark days, and now I see the guys being picked high. The program is back," said shooting guard Maurice Creek, who came to Indiana to help restore the basketball program before three season-ending injuries derailed his career. "We have more pieces than when I first got here."
The struggles continued through Crean's next two seasons as Indiana went 10-21 and 12-20. Doubters began to wonder how long all this would take.
The Hoosiers answered that challenge with a magical 2011-12. Indiana won 15 more games, finishing 27-9 and making their first NCAA tourney under Crean. But it wasn't just the Hoosiers record that got national attention.
On Dec. 10, Christian Watford hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to beat No. 1 Kentucky 73-72. Three weeks later, the Hoosiers upset then No. 2 Ohio State 74-70. In February, as No. 5 Michigan State closed in on a Big Ten title, the Hoosiers did it again, soundly beating the Spartans 70-55.
It marked the first time in school history that Indiana had beaten three top-five teams in the same season, and the first time in Crean's tenure that the Hoosiers became a ranked team. The only real glitch came in the March rematch with Kentucky, won by the eventual national champs 102-90 — a loss the Hoosiers are now using as motivation.
"It probably always lingers because you never want to lose a game," Hulls said. "You hate the feeling of a loss, and we don't want to get back to that point and lose again."
Zeller, who averaged 15.6 points and 6.6 rebounds last season, has grown about one-half inch to an even 7-feet, has added 10 to 15 pounds of muscle and feels stronger and better than he did a year ago. He is also ready to start shooting 3-pointers.
"I worked on it a lot this summer," he said after Hoosier Hysteria. "I shot 3s in high school, but I know I'll have to shoot some from outside this year."
Watford (12.6 points), Hulls (11.7 points) and Oladipo (10.8) also are back.
What else does Indiana have? Depth and one of the nation's top freshmen classes.
Backup Will Sheehey (8.6) and sophomores Remy Abell and Austin Etherington could all have expanded roles this year. New point guard Yogi Ferrell and two 6-foot-8 forwards, Hanner Mosquera-Perea and Jeremy Hollowell, all freshmen, could both see significant playing time, too, especially with forward Derek Elston expected to miss six to eight weeks with a torn meniscus.
But Crean has another advantage other national contenders don't. His team has enough players still around from those losing seasons to remind players to ignore the chatter and just work toward getting their sweetest finish of all — a sixth national championship banner.
"I'm not even going to try to downplay that it's not a big deal. It's not a 'hey, we told you so.' It's none of that. We lived it. And I think it's a great testament to everybody that's been a part of that program with sticking with it and moving onward and upward," Crean said. "It's an incredible program. It's an incredible school. We need people that are going to come in and leave it in a better place than they found it. That's exactly what our players are trying to do."