BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Matt Roth remembers every vivid detail from that dreadful freshman season at Indiana.
He won only six games, just one in Big Ten play, and sometimes measured success by simply gutting out 40 minutes of basketball.
There were also things nobody saw, like the day coach Tom Crean had players running wind sprints until everybody crossed the baseline in time. Junior college transfer Tijan Jobe refused to participate, so as the rest of the Hoosiers sprinted from one end of the court to the other, Roth tried desperately between breaks to pry the 7-footer's clutched fingers off the basket support. Each time Roth would get about three fingers loose, Jobe would grasp the handles even tighter and then the whistle blew to start another sprint. The scene went on seemingly forever.
"It was like 'Is this seriously happening?'" Roth recalled.
In just seven words, Roth summed up the entire college careers of five Indiana seniors who will play their final home game Sunday against archrival Purdue.
The "first five" as they like to call themselves spent three seasons hitting every possible hurdle — the fallout from an NCAA scandal, the embarrassment of an abysmal academic record prior to their arrival, three straight losing seasons, devastating injuries and constant questions about what it would take to resurrect Indiana's proud basketball tradition.
But they also stuck around long enough to celebrate the remarkable resurgence of Hoosiers basketball -- an upset of the nation's No. 1 team, a perfect 13-0 nonconference record and the first team in school history to knock off three top-five opponents in the regular season. With three more wins, the Hoosiers (23-7) can produce their highest victory total since Indiana went 31-4 in 1992-93.
Not bad for a group that endured the lowest of lows.
"There was a point where you said 'I never knew it would be this bad, can I get through it?'" walk-on and baseball player Kory Barnett said. "But it's an experience I'll probably never be able to replicate. ... It's special because no other team has been through it. Maybe at other programs, but nobody's ever known that here."
The fans, of course, believe they understand.
After all, they felt the pain that came with each agonizing loss and stood by the players and coaches through the bleakest of moments.
But the public spectacle was only part of the story.
"People always told me that I should have played soccer or gone to Boston (University)," said Daniel Moore, a walk-on guard who was finally given a scholarship for his final season. "It's something you really don't understand until you're part of it. I was fortunate enough, with my family, that I could make the decisions I wanted to and I got to live out my dream by playing at IU."
None of the five -- Roth, Barnett, Moore, Tom Pritchard or Verdell Jones -- expected things to be this difficult.
When Crean accepted the Indiana job on April 1, 2008, the Hoosiers were supposed to have a solid corps of returning players mixed with an influx of young talent.
By mid-May, the program was in full meltdown.
Starting guard Armon Bassett was booted off the team and eventually wound up leading Ohio University to the NCAA tournament. Jordan Crawford, another starting guard, transferred to Xavier, led the Musketeers to the NCAA tourney and later became a first-round pick in the NBA draft. Backup center Eli Holman transferred to Detroit and was recently chosen the Horizon League's sixth man of the year. Guard Eric Gordon declared for the NBA draft.
Even prized recruits Devin Ebanks and Tu Holloway backed out of their commitments. Ebanks went to the Final Four with West Virginia and is already in the NBA. Holloway, who went to Xavier, could join him in the pros after this season.
That left Roth and Pritchard as the only remaining members from the original four-man recruiting class. Jones and Jobe both signed with Indiana later.
Suddenly, the newcomers who had picked Indiana for its strong basketball reputation were adjusting their expectations.
"One of the reasons I committed here was making the NCAA tournament, but I really didn't expect what was going to happen," Pritchard said. "I knew I was going to get a lot of playing time, but I didn't expect it to be like that. It's been a long couple of years."
Long and, for much of the time, frustrating as people kept trying to write them off.
As sophomores, Pritchard and Co. saw incoming freshmen Christian Watford and Maurice Creek called the future of the program. But when Creek went down with a season-ending knee injury in December, the Hoosiers were lost. They won only four more times and finished 10-21.
Last season, with another solid recruiting class, Hoosiers fans thought they might make it back to postseason play. In January, Creek sustained another season-ending injury to the other knee and the Hoosiers only two more games, finishing 12-20.
So when Creek tore his Achilles tendon in October, the fear was that Indiana would wind up with a fourth straight losing season — something that had never happened in Bloomington.
But the three classes that were supposed to lift the Hoosiers out of the Big Ten basement, rallied around the seniors.
The Hoosiers started 12-0 for the first time since Indiana won the national championship in 1975-76. They upset No. 1 Kentucky and No. 2 Ohio State in December. They gave Crean his first 20-win season since leaving Marquette, and his first victory over Tom Izzo, his old boss. Now, they're just a week away from, finally, returning to the NCAA tournament after a three-year absence.
"When we first got here, we talked about uncharted water. It was for everybody," Crean said after Tuesday's upset of No. 5 Michigan State. "It's the same thing now, when you're climbing and you're getting better. We cannot get caught up in anything but that climb and making that climb better."
It may be just the start.
In four years, the seniors have presided over the greatest turnaround in Indiana history.Comment on this story
The team's Academic Progress Rate score, which was 811 in 2007-08, is now a perfect 1,000. The three years of NCAA probation that resulted from former coach Kelvin Sampson's series of impermissible phone calls to recruits ended earlier this season.
And the players who were told they weren't talented enough to preside over Indiana's resurgence have done just that through perseverance, hard work and a toughness they didn't know they had.
"We wouldn't be here now if it hadn't gone through those last three years," Roth said. "It's going to be a lot of fun to look back and see where we've taken this program and where it's going to continue to go."