By MICHAEL MAROT
AP Sports Writer
BLOOMINGTON -- Indiana has never endured a basketball season like this.
The Hoosiers have already lost 21 games and 14 Big Ten games, both school records, going into Saturday's game at Penn State. Even their pristine 35-game home winning streak against Northwestern, the nation's second-longest active streak against one team, went down Wednesday with an exclamation point: worst loss in Assembly Hall history.
It's one of the most challenging rebuilding seasons a major college basketball team has faced.
"We had to do an unprecedented thing," coach Tom Crean said after Wednesday's 75-53 loss. "They have battled, they have not succeeded at a high level, but they have battled at a high level."
Many Indiana fans believe that's all Crean could ask for this season. His team has played hard, been relatively competitive and focused on fixing both the big and little things as they faced one of the nation's toughest schedules.
But the former Marquette coach with the big dreams, sterling resume and endless optimism never wanted to admit it would be this rough -- even with the fallout from Indiana's first major NCAA scandal in nearly half a century.
Crean had nothing to do with the violations but is now the architect of a massive restoration project.
In April, he took over a program that was gutted after former coach Kelvin Sampson's recruiting phone-call scandal. Sampson left in February 2008, and none of Sampson's assistants were retained this season. By mid-May, Crean had only two players left from the 2007-08 roster -- walk-on Brett Finkelmeier and former walk-on Kyle Taber.
Then Crean learned the full scope of the problems.
Players were skipping classes, there were rumors of a drug problem and the school's self-imposed sanctions severely inhibited Crean's ability to recruit.
He spent the summer pleading with fans for patience, promising better days ahead -- after this season.
And what a season.
Indiana has won only six times, blown leads of 20 points twice, including a home loss to Lipscomb, and slogged through a record-tying 11-game losing streak.
Those off-court problems resurfaced, too.
The NCAA's ruling came in November when the Hoosiers were in Hawaii. In December, former Indiana star Eric Gordon publicly confirmed that some of his ex-teammates used drugs. And earlier this month, Crean suspended his top scorer, Devan Dumes, for two games because he was throwing flagrant elbows at opponents.
But even with all those issues swirling, the energetic Crean has taken a tough line.
He doesn't talk about the scandal and calls these players good kids. He emphasizes classwork and talks about the progress his team has made. He's spent countless hours teaching how to compete in the Big Ten, and despite the poor record and five fewer scholarship players than the NCAA limit, the Hoosiers have continued to scrap.
"We can't stop working," Crean said. "We have to balance a very, very tight rope on building that foundation on how it's going to be and get the most out of every kid every day."
There are signs that things are changing.
Five of the losses have been by five points or less or in overtime, and the confidence level of Crean and his players has grown.
Crean has routinely thanked fans for their support and spent time posing for photos and signing autographs after games. He's reached out to former players and coaches, trying to restore the tradition to a program with five national titles, and he insists he will bring the prestige back to a program with five national titles, in time.
"There's three things I learned a long time ago from Ralph Willard: It's the work ethic, it's the style of play and it's the enthusiasm," Crean said after the Northwestern loss. "The fans have taken care of the enthusiasm. The work ethic is coming. The style of play is not here yet."
Crean's new message: Don't get down, get better.
"He pretty much said we've got to keep working hard and we've got to become tougher," Taber said. "I think that's going to be the mind-set, to see how tough we can become."
For now, Crean's toughest mission will be getting his players to stay with the plan. If he can keep the progression going and use the summer to build up the program, the future looks bright.
Freshman forward Tom Pritchard has demonstrated he can bang with the Big Ten's best. Freshmen guards Verdell Jones and Nick Williams have developed into solid scorers. Freshman Malik Story has added a physical presence, and Dumes, a junior college transfer, has been more selective with his shot selection.
All will be paired next season with a highly rated recruiting class and expectations more befitting of Indiana's tradition.
"I've been driving hard because I can believe we can win games," Crean said. "I take it (losing) personal. I take it very personal. And that's why the best thing we can do is push them and get it back. We'll get it back in a big way. I don't know when that's going to be, but we will."