Tom Crean just put the finishing touches on his second outright Big Ten regular season title in the past four seasons, going into Carver-Hawkeye Arena and knocking off No. 16 Iowa, 81-78.
It may not seem like Indiana winning two outright Big Ten titles in the span of four seasons is a big deal, but it is, particularly when you consider what Crean has been through this season.
There was no guarantee that Crean was actually going to get off of the plane with his job intact after Indiana was utterly humiliated in a loss at Duke earlier this season. I wrote a 2,000 word column on it at the time. It was as bad of a defensive performance as you’re ever going to see. The Hoosiers, at the time, had already lost to Wake Forest — who is currently avoiding the cellar of the ACC thanks to winless Boston College — and UNLV — who was so bad this season that their head coach was forced to resign three games into conference play.
The fan base had turned on him prior to the season, just waiting for him to give them a reason.
Then the mother of one of his best players cussed him out in a Facebook post.
Then he lost James Blackmon Jr., Indiana’s best shooter and second-leading scorer, to a season-ending knee injury.
The ending — a spiraling season culminating in a coaching change — was inevitable … until it wasn’t. Crean found a way to get a bunch of kids that never seemed all that interested in playing defense to become one of the better defensive teams in the Big Ten. He turned Thomas Bryant from a liability into the active, aggressive paint presence that he was hyped as being when he entered the program as a freshman. He discovered his secret weapon, OG Anunoby. And he hitched his wagon to Yogi Ferrell, who managed to put together an all-american caliber season while carrying the Hoosiers as far as his 5-foot-11 frame will take them.
Before I go any further on Crean, it’s worth celebrating the season that Ferrell has had. He entered the program with an unfathomable amount of expectation, the centerpiece of a highly-regarded recruiting class of in-state kids that was supposed to join forces with Cody Zeller, Victor Oladipo and company and return the Hoosiers to the glory of yesteryear.
But Zeller and Oladipo went pro after Yogi’s freshman season. Then each and every other member of that recruiting class transferred out of the program, either because they weren’t good enough or because they spent too much time making headlines for things like underage drinking or getting busted for possession. Yogi himself wasn’t immune, as he got popped for using a fake ID.
His legacy was on the line this season.
And regardless of what happens the rest of the month, he’ll leave Bloomington as a legend, never to pay for another meal in the Hoosier State again.
So good for him.
Moments like this really only happen in college sports, and for it to happen this way for a basketball player at a basketball school in a basketball state is one of the great stories this season.
And good for Tom Crean.
Because he just relieved quite a bit of the pressure that was on him. Remember, things were so bad in Indiana that fans would chant ‘Tom Crean Sucks’ at Crean’s son’s high school basketball games.
But the question now becomes whether or not this is going to be enough to win people over. On the one hand, the Crean era can no longer be called a disappointment. He’s won two outright Big Ten regular season titles since Obama was given a second term in office. In the 20 seasons before that, Indiana had won just a single Big Ten title, back in 2002, and that includes the first three years of Crean’s tenure, which he spent trying to rebuild on the scorched earth that was left by Kelvin Sampson.
On the other hand, Indiana fans are never fully going to be behind Crean again. All it is going to take is one slip-up for them to come for his throat. What if he loses in the opening round of the NCAA tournament? What if Troy Williams and Thomas Bryant head to the NBA, leaving Crean in full blown rebuilding mode once again? Will the Hoosier faithful be happy with yet another season of sitting around and waiting for a crop of incoming freshmen to become accustomed to the college game?
Ron Davis is the perfect example of this.
Who is Ron Davis?
He’s one of the random twitter users that spends their days defending their favorite team against the biased hatred of sportswriters everywhere. He believed I had somehow disrespected Tom Crean, and after yelling at me for a couple of tweets, he told me that Crean “has proved by turning [the season] around he deserve the respect of Hoosiers everywhere….For how long I don’t know.”
I added the bold.
Because that’s my point here.
How long is Crean going to be in the good graces of the Hoosier State, and will that be enough for him — or the powers that be at Indiana — to decide whether or not a change needs to be made?
Will Crean decide that it’s better to leave a year too early instead of a year too late, that risking the quality of his life and his family’s life is not worth the money? Will Indiana do what UCLA did when they got rid of Ben Howland after he won a conference title?
I don’t have that answer. I’m not sure Crean or the Indiana Athletic Department currently does, either.
What I do know is that the relationship between that coach, that school and those fans is not going to be fixed simply by winning the Big Ten regular season title …