Hoosiers trying to draw a crowd

Hoosiers trying to draw a crowd

Check out Klee's preview of Saturday's game here

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Way up in the balcony section at Indiana's Assembly Hall, closer to the ceiling than the court, there's a party brewing.

"We call it Club Crean," said Pat Kraft, IU's senior assistant athletic director for marketing.

Seven disco balls spin in Club Crean. There's a velvet rope, and a DJ blares Miley Cyrus. Indiana students battle it out in Nintendo Wii tournaments.

"For one game we'll have an '80s night and bring two of the best costumes down to the floor at halftime," Kraft said.

Bear with us now.

Basketball still is the attraction at Assembly Hall, and it won't be a relaxed Greek mixer when Illinois visits Indiana today (7 p.m., Big Ten Network).

It's not that Indiana's undergrads forgot they attend a basketball school, either. Even when student attendance tumbled last season – season ticket sales dropped below 7,000 for the first time in 30-plus years, Kraft said – they still sold more than 4,000.

But there was some welcoming back to do.

Indiana suffered through a program-record 25 losses last season, and the fandom was reeling from the Kelvin Sampson disaster. Because the Hoosiers aren't winning like they used to, the school had to find ways to ensure Assembly Hall didn't lose its edge. So it introduced promotions like a family four-pack, $5 balcony seats and, of course, Club Crean.

"Indiana basketball has a lot of tradition. We don't veer from that," Kraft said. "But this is a way to get students involved, to get them at games. We had to energize that Indiana Hoosier brand that really got lost with the Kelvin Sampson issues."

Coming off the worst season in Indiana history, the regulars stood firm. Indiana had a 99 percent renewal rate on season tickets, said G. Michael Roberts, the director for ticket operations.

The priority was winning back the students. And the students, who begin the semester Monday, gradually are returning. The student season ticket sale totaled 6,403 out of 7,800 seats within the student area, Roberts said.

As of Friday, there were about 700 tickets available for tonight's game at 17,357-seat Assembly Hall. A sellout would be Indiana's first this season.

Selling tickets is part of every coach's job description. Still, luring fans rarely has been required of the coach at Indiana. But there's a reason second-year coach Tom Crean spent 50 minutes signing autographs after Indiana lost at home to Illinois last year. Fans were restless, and Crean has made an honest attempt to reconnect the program with its people.

"He was a good guy for the situation here. I think everybody would agree with that," said Mike Pegram, who covers Indiana for Rivals.com. "Tom is a very good speaker, a positive guy. He's really embraced the past of Indiana, maybe more than past coaches since Coach Knight left. He's very honest about the situation he took over. I think fans last year appreciated the effort. They appreciate the kind of kids he's brought in."

Winning games is still the best marketing tool, and Indiana has just one Sweet 16 appearance in the past 15 years. The dire situation Crean found, however, is sure to buy him some time as he attempts to rebuild the program.

"He does promote the program to its fullest extent," Pegram said. "He does what he feels he has to do."

Despite Indiana's struggles on the court, the Illini anticipate a fired-up atmosphere. Indiana's biggest crowd last season was the 17,346 who attended the Illinois game.

Illinois coach Bruce Weber spent the first five minutes of practice Thursday telling his players how Indiana is a vastly different team at home and how Illinois will get the Hoosiers' best shot.

That's nothing new. UI assistant Jerrance Howard recalled a 2002 game at Indiana, when unranked Indiana crushed No. 9 Illinois 88-57.

"To this day, it's the loudest arena I've been in," said Howard, a player at the time.

"I think the reason they're good there is simple. Whether they're good or bad, it's the fans," said assistant Wayne McClain, in his ninth season on the UI sideline. "They know basketball. They love their team. They're raucous. It's not that it's harder to coach there (as an opponent). It's just that they're so loud. That's why they're so good at home."

It's just that Indiana is using different means to get them in the seats.