BLOOMINGTON, IND. — Many factors went into Indiana's run to its second Big Ten regular season championship in the past four seasons.
It started with the return of star point guard Yogi Ferrell for his senior year after a brief flirtation with the idea of leaving early for the NBA. It continued with the recruiting of a strong freshman class and the addition of a key graduate transfer.
But what most don't know outside the team's locker room and coach Tom Crean's small circle of friends and family — including a couple of football coaches named Harbaugh — is how a trip to Baltimore last fall played into Indiana's surprising season.
The four-day visit served as the foundation for helping turn around what had been an underachieving and fractious team the past two years.
Standing outside the media room Sunday night here at Assembly Hall after his team's 80-62 win over Maryland, the once-embattled Crean talked about what the trip ultimately meant to the Hoosiers.
"The biggest thing to me was watching television when the riots were going on [after Freddie Gray's death in police custody]," Crean said. "That hit me. It was like, 'How do you give back to someone?' I knew we couldn't make a tremendous impact, but I wanted to give something back."
With the help of his brother-in-law, Ravens coach John Harbaugh, Crean started making plans. Crean said he was put in touch with the Baltimore Police Department and a visit to the Goodnow Recreation Center was set up.
"We wanted to make sure there was a community effort that we could give," Crean said. "It's not like we were going in there thinking you could change the world. If you can go in there and help a couple of people, then it was well worth it. We turned it into a great leadership trip."
The Hoosiers flew into Baltimore on a Thursday night and headed to the Naval Academy on Friday morning, where they practiced at Alumni Hall and shared a meal with midshipmen. After returning to Baltimore that afternoon, the Indiana team visited the rec center.
According to longtime director Gloria Jenkins, the Hoosiers spent several hours with about 40 children ages 6 to 16.
"It was originally going to be a shorter time, but once the players and the children became engaged with one another, it went on and on," said Jenkins, who has been involved with the center since it opened in 1995 as a Police Athletic League center and has been its director for 11 years. "It was a great time. The children had a ball and the Indiana Hoosiers did as well."
Jenkins said she was surprised at "how warm and friendly the coaching staff was and that just moved down to the team. They talked to us about what it's like getting up early in the morning and what they need to do, they talked about the academics and their goals."
At Christmas, Jenkins said she received a card at the center signed by all the players and coaches.
"I thought that was great," she said. "Who would have done that?"
Junior forward Troy Williams said the trip to Maryland benefited him personally and his team collectively.
"Going to the community center and seeing the kids, that was a great experience," Williams said Sunday. "The kids probably stuck out the most to me because I used to be one of those kids, and being less fortunate. To see where I came from and seeing their happy faces, it shows that anybody can do it."
Asked how it affected the team during the season, Williams said, "It brings humbleness to you. It makes you not big-headed or anything like that. An experience like that can change a whole person's mindset and makes you realize how grateful you are for things."
On Saturday morning, the team visited with the Ravens, attending the walk-through and meetings before Sunday's game against the Cleveland Browns and then going through conditioning and strength training at the Ravens' facility in Owings Mills.
"The only bad part of the weekend is that they didn't win," Crean said of a game that the Hoosiers attended and the Ravens lost, 33-30, in overtime. "There's a bonding experience but what happens with those guys is that they'll invoke those memories during the year. You never know what's going to hit them, but you want to give them as many experiences as you can."
Harbaugh was not available to comment but said in a video about Indiana's trip made by CBS Sports that both teams enjoyed the day.
"I think it energized our guys a little bit," Harbaugh said. "It gave them so much life. Our guys wanted to shoot 3's with them to see what they could do. The basketball players wanted to catch passes for touchdowns. … I think [the Hoosiers] could understand how seriously [the Ravens] take it and how much fun they have at it, too."
Of his brother-in-law, Crean said, "For him to allow us to be exposed to what they do was phenomenal. They treated these guys like they were one of them, and that says a lot about the Ravens organization."
In the CBS video, Harbaugh told the Hoosiers, "You've got to trust first. … You've got to have the courage to step out on a limb first if you want to be part of something special, outrageously amazingly great. When you do that, when you have that accomplishment, you will walk together forever. You will be a team for the rest of your lives."
The Hoosiers also spent time at the Johns Hopkins University, where longtime lacrosse coach Dave Pietramala gave them a tour of the Cordish Lacrosse Center. Pietramala spoke for about 20 minutes, then had a question-and-answer session.
"We talked about the pressure at being an athlete at a place with high expectations, and how it's important to carry yourself and comport yourself in a class manner and to represent yourself, your program and your family the right way," Pietramala said this week.
Crean said the impact of the trip was not felt immediately. The Hoosiers struggled for the first month, losing to Wake Forest and Nevada-Las Vegas in the Maui Invitational and then coming back to the mainland and getting crushed by then-No. 7 Duke by 20 points at Cameron Indoor Stadium in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.
With many questioning Crean's future in Bloomington, Indiana then reeled off 12 straight victories — including its first seven games in the Big Ten — to jump into contention with Maryland and Iowa, both top 10 teams, as the early front runners. As the Terps and Hawkeyes faded down the stretch, the Hoosiers kept winning. They lost, however, to Michigan 72-69 on Friday in the Big Ten Tournament.
Graduate forward Max Bielfeldt, who transferred to Indiana this season after playing his first three seasons at Michigan, said leaving Bloomington for a few days as a team before the season brought the players closer together.
"With so many new pieces on the team, so many new guys with transfers and the freshmen coming in, it was kind of like a road trip before any real games came because you had guys living in the dorms, guys in apartments. It was kind of nice for us to go out there and have that bonding experience," Bielfeldt said.