Indiana's Remy Abell, left, and Cody Zeller celebrate after defeating...

Indiana's Remy Abell, left, and Cody Zeller celebrate after defeating Virginia Commonwealth 63-61 in their NCAA tournament third-round college basketball game. (March 17, 2012) Credit: AP

ATLANTA -- Two illustrations of how far Indiana basketball has come to reach the NCAA South Regional semifinals:

Exhibit A: Tu Holloway, the star Xavier guard who will lead his team into the other game here Friday night, had planned to attend Indiana but backed out after coach Kelvin Sampson resigned under pressure amid NCAA violations in 2008.

Exhibit B: Cody Zeller, a freshman center for the Hoosiers out of Washington, Ind., is 19 and has little memory of his home-state team as a relevant college basketball factor.

"Throughout my life, Indiana basketball hasn't been real great,'' he said yesterday.

There was a time when any 9-year-old in the state would have memories of Hoosiers hoops glory, let alone a 19-year-old. But such was the program Tom Crean took over four seasons ago.

What followed were three NCAA Tournament-free seasons, and records of 6-25, 10-21 and 12-20.

Now this: No. 4 seed Indiana is 27-8 entering Friday night's game against No. 1 Kentucky (33-2). The Hoosiers aren't all the way back yet. But their first Sweet 16 since 2002 is a welcome milestone.

"It's an opportunity for these players to do something they have seen since their childhood and thought about and worked toward and built their games for,'' Crean said. "And here they are.''

Crean said one of the most encouraging voices during the toughest times was that of Kentucky coach John Calipari.

"You have to have a will that's stronger than everybody around you, and he does, to get Indiana back to where now you're looking at a top-five program kids across the country watch and say, 'I'd like to play for them,' '' Calipari said.

Indiana's best recruiting pitch of the regular season was its 73-72 victory over Kentucky Dec. 10. It was an odd game in which Indiana shot 9-for-15 on three-pointers and Kentucky suffered from an off night by forward Terrence Jones and foul trouble for forward Anthony Davis, its Player of the Year candidate.

Still, Indiana needed a three-pointer at the buzzer by Christian Watford to win it. It was among the regular season's most exciting finishes and still is replayed frequently, including as part of a television ad. "I know they made one really good shot at the end of the game,'' Calipari said, "because I've seen it on commercials about every 15 minutes.''

The commercial technically is to promote ESPN. But it also is an effective advertisement of the fact that Indiana is back where its fans believe it always belongs.

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