Tom Crean didn’t look like any of the other people in the Maui airport that day.
He had just coached his third, fourth and fifth games in his first season at Indiana. He looked how you would expect a coach to look after losing games by 38 and 26 points, then managing to beat Division II Chaminade by only two points in the seventh-place game of the Maui Invitational. The Silverswords got off a possible game-winning 3-point attempt at the buzzer.
Others waiting for flights to the mainland on the day before Thanksgiving in 2008 were wearing leis and flowered shirts and were carefully carrying pineapples. Not Crean. He had a lot of things on his mind and looked like he was ready to blow the whistle and start practice.
“This is going to take a while,” Crean said at the time. “We can do it. This place has so much in so many ways.”
He was standing and pacing now, the way he piles up the miles on the sideline.
“We can do this,” he said. “We can do this.”
Not many people would have believed it then. They do now. Another step in the return of the fabled Hoosiers program came today as Crean is about to start his fifth season in Bloomington.
Indiana was ranked No. 1 in The Associated Press’ preseason men’s basketball Top 25, a first for the Hoosiers since 1979-80, when they were coached by Bob Knight and the 3-point line was still in the experimental phase.
The Hoosiers and their fans are quite familiar with the next two teams in the voting: Louisville and Kentucky.
The three schools are from the basketball-rabid area known as “Kentuckiana.” Nos. 1, 2 and 3 are all within an easy drive of each other and they are schools which have known basketball success over the years and recently, as well.
The Hoosiers, who return all five starters including 7-foot sophomore Cody Zeller, received 43 first-place votes from the 65-member national media panel. Indiana is a preseason No. 1 for the third time.
Louisville, which reached the Final Four last season, and Kentucky, the reigning national champions who beat Indiana in the regional semifinals and Louisville in the national semifinals, received the rest of the first-place votes. Louisville was No. 1 on 20 ballots and the Wildcats got the other two.
Louisville has most of the team back from last season, including Gorgui Dieng, a defensive force in the middle. Kentucky, on the other hand, has another roster full of talented freshmen after four players left early and were taken in the first round of the NBA draft including overall No. 1 and 2 picks Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
This is the fifth time that Indiana, Louisville and Kentucky were all ranked in the preseason top 10. The last time was 1982-83 when Kentucky was No. 4, Louisville No. 8 and Indiana was ninth.
Indiana’s other preseason No. 1 was in 1975-76 when the Hoosiers put together the last unbeaten run to a national championship.
Ohio State and Michigan joined Indiana as Big Ten teams ranked in the top five. The last time a conference had three teams in the preseason top five was 2008-09 when Connecticut, Louisville and Pittsburgh of the Big East were second, third and fifth, respectively.
North Carolina State, Kansas, Duke, Syracuse and Florida round out the top 10.
North Carolina led the second 10 and was followed by Arizona, UCLA, Michigan State, Missouri, Creighton, Memphis, UNLV, Baylor and San Diego State.
The last five ranked teams were Gonzaga, Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Cincinnati and Florida State.
The Big Ten led the way with five teams in the preseason poll, while the Big East and Atlantic Coast Conference had four each. Along with the Southeastern Conference’s three teams, those four leagues accounted for 16 of the 25 teams.
Crean took over an Indiana program in 2008-09 that had plenty of history — five national championships — and a lot of current problems. Only two players returned from a team that was facing NCAA discipline over a phone call scandal that led to the ouster of coach Kelvin Sampson.
The program was back on the national scene last season when Christian Watford’s 3-pointer at the buzzer beat No. 1 Kentucky and the fans rushed the court at Assembly Hall. Three straight losing seasons seemed long ago as the Hoosiers added two more wins over teams ranked in the top five and got back in the NCAA tournament.
Now Crean has a team that will start the season No. 1
“It’s great. Those things are great,” Crean said. “I think now, it’s just so much about the daily challenge of getting better. That to me is what the focus is. It’s a big deal, but you don’t get any banners for your preseason rankings. You’ve got to go out and you’ve got to earn it every day. I think that’s what this team is really doing a good job of, and I know it’s early, but they’re doing a good job of it.”
Duke has the longest current streak of consecutive poll appearances at 97, a run that started with the preseason poll of 2007-08. Kansas has the second-longest current run at 65 weeks.