In Big Ten championship season, Crean deserves the credit for major turnaround

  • 03/03/2016 10:48 am in

Just six coaches had won multiple outright Big Ten regular season championships in the last 30 years when Indiana took the floor on Tuesday night in Iowa City.

By the time the final buzzer sounded and the Hoosiers celebrated an 81-78 win at Carver Hawkeye Arena, a seventh name was added to the list: Tom Crean.

With his second outright league title in four years, Crean joined a group that includes arguably the two most successful coaches in league history in Bob Knight and Tom Izzo. He also continued to silence those, including plenty of Indiana fans, who thought this team was done after early season debacles in Maui and at Cameron Indoor Stadium versus Duke.

When Crean sat in the press conference after the Duke loss, he was visibly irked by his team’s performance, but he didn’t budge on his belief that he, his coaching staff and players would be able to figure things out.

“It’s eight games in,” Crean said on Dec. 2. “I think we’ll get better. That’s the bottom line.”

This program, under Crean’s leadership and the terrific play of senior point guard Yogi Ferrell, has done more than just get better in the three months since the Duke loss.

The Hoosiers have won 19 of 22 games, including six Big Ten road games and a win over Notre Dame at Bankers Life Fieldhouse that required a comeback from a 16-point second half deficit.

A quick start in the Big Ten was dismissed by national media because of a schedule that appeared to be backloaded. But as we sit here a little more than 72 hours from the regular season finale against Maryland at Assembly Hall, Indiana seems to be hitting the gas pedal while some other league foes, like Iowa, go in the tank.

The knock on Crean teams in previous seasons has been that they fade in February when the games begin to really matter. Indiana finished this February with a 5-2 record.

Not only did Indiana win the Big Ten regular season championship outright, the Hoosiers did it with plenty of moving pieces that had the potential to knock things well off course.

The grumbling and uncertainty about Crean’s future was as loud as ever as conference play tipped off in late December, but things got even more challenging. On the Monday before a Wednesday contest at Rutgers, Indiana lost its second leading scorer James Blackmon Jr. to a knee injury.

While it’s not totally fair to say that Indiana is a better team without Blackmon Jr., it is fair to say that this team has evolved and grown in his absence.

The defense, which had plenty of subpar performances all of last season and in non-conference play this season, is the fourth best in the conference. Roles are more defined as young players like OG Anunoby, Harrison Niego and Juwan Morgan, who were brought along slowly early on, are providing depth that doesn’t lead to dropoffs in production when Indiana goes to the bench.

Troy Williams, who had been awful in plenty of road games, just went for 15 points and seven rebounds at Iowa and might be playing his best stretch of basketball this season. Thomas Bryant continues to finish with amazing efficiency in the paint with a field goal percentage over 70. Seniors Max Bielfeldt and Nick Zeisloft and junior Collin Hartman are making veteran plays and providing leadership. Before he went down with an ankle injury, Rob Johnson was playing his best basketball of the season.

And of course there’s Ferrell, who has grown into the leader that Crean has been searching for since Jordan Hulls, Christian Watford, Derek Elston, Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller left the program in the spring of 2013.

Crean challenged Ferrell in August to step up and lead and he’s done more than that. He’s squarely in the race for Big Ten player of the year after winning his second outright league title in four years.

The constant in all of this, of course, is Crean.

As much as he’s been second guessed for roster management the past two seasons, credit him for putting together this cohesive group. In the spring, he landed Bryant, who solidified the paint on a team that had been too perimeter oriented last season. The three other freshman, who no one was writing much about in the preseason, have all exceeded expectations. And when three players had to be dismissed in the offseason for poor decisions, he went out and brought in Bielfeldt, a major contributor to the Big Ten title run.

“He never gave up on us. He kept believing in us,” Ferrell said on Tuesday. “And what he wanted to do especially was prove the doubters wrong. We basically were following his lead. The way he goes out there and his calmness in those huddles, he never got worried and when we look into his eyes, we see that he believes that we can win and when we see that, all of us believe that we can win.”

Now as the season hits its most critical stretch, it’s clear that Crean and his players aren’t satisfied just being Big Ten champions.

There’s little talk about the accomplishment of a league title and in the immediate aftermath of the win, an emotional Crean was already looking ahead to the next game.

“We’ve got one more regular-season game and there is absolutely no way, there is no way,” Crean said with his voice breaking. “There is no way, there is no way that we’re not walking out of that place Sunday with our seniors with their heads held extremely high. There is no way, there is no way that this group, that this group is not going to walk out that way, and that’s what our focus is going to be.”

Filed to:

  • Koko

    Your predicted flack will not be warranted this season. I guess there are those who will overlook what the coaches and team have done this year and rant about not being in the final 4. Those same people will rant if we don’t win out as a final four team. Overall the coach has obviously changed his philosophy and coached the team he has quite well. I’m sure he will be around for a couple more years and if he continues as he did this year even further….there will be a #6 at some point. Is this year our best chance for a final four? Injuries and seeding will determine that.

  • On that last note, I wonder how many teams have been out of the top 25 in mid-Feb and then even a #2 (or #3) seed in March?

  • Koko

    With JM and RJ healthy we are a buzz saw of a team. Heck even without them we have some very sharp teeth. Sunday will be a very interesting game to see how we play without those two.

  • Koko

    My low point was Maui but then the Duke game sent me into the abyss. I’m a gluten for punishment though, I watched the games after that loss. And yes at half time of the ND game I was thinking we are toast….another so so season. The last 10 mins of that game pulled me out of the abyss and the sun started to shine once again.

  • Koko

    That’s what friends are for.

  • Koko

    Your last two sentences sum it up for me.

  • Blair McKee

    Their shooting this year from 3 has negated the point of a zone. They shoot lights out right over it. I was referring to the Syracuse game where IU was psyched right out of the gym before the tip-off with the thought of going up against this gimmick D. They are still psyched out when they have to go up against the master Izzo-san *bows to the north

  • IUMIKE1

    Couldn’t agree more. We have the offense, so much that we can afford to sacrifice some in a trade off for the much more needed defense and length. In other words, IMO, do we, start with and give the bulk of the minutes to a 2 guard line up or a 3 guard line up. The 2 guard line up has provided more of both, and guess what, we sacrificed very little offense, if any at all, can play just as fast and it allows TW to play the 3 where we get considerably more out of him than when he plays the 4. It’s the ole, would he have or would he not have quandary, would he have pretty much stayed with the minute distribution/ line up of the pre JBJ injury, or would he have went with the current minute distribution / line up and if so by the time he got to it would it have been too late to have won the B1G ? To say that he would have for sure done things one way or the other based on certain other things is only each sides opinion. The only for sure things are that we’ll never know that for sure, that the line up and minute distribution as it is now is working very well and that TC gets the credit for being the one that is deciding who the starters are and who plays how many minutes and in what situations .

  • IUMIKE1

    Completely agree.

  • Ms hoosier

    Yes he did! If yogi hangs a banner got to put him up there with Isaih and Calbert

  • henryhansen

    I don’t mean for this to sound harsh – but we did luck out with an extremely favorable B10 schedule. You can’t argue with that. However – that said – we came through. Congrats to Crean. IU is a tough gig. Expectations are and should be high. He gets paid a ton of dough. He has to win to keep his job. That’s part of the deal. People may argue with this – but he’ll need to take the team into at least the second weekend of the tourney…or people will say “see, they played a soft schedule”. Believe me – I wish him the best of luck!!!

  • IUMIKE1

    Your comment REALLY makes me wish for the ability to upvote a comment more than once. I understand that he wants to get up and down the floor quickly, spread the floor and have the ability to shoot and make a lot of 3’s, but with as many bigs (6’7″ to 6’8″ and taller) as there is that can do all of those things, PLUS give a team better rebounding and better overall team D, a 2 guard line up is the way to go.

  • TomJameson

    Hahahaha … I seriously doubt that team was “psyched out” prior to the game. I’m sorry, but to me that is a very ridiculous idea. They had a problem with Syracuse because their best, and most reliable 3-point shooter was playing with a separated shoulder. Pretty simple … but maybe it’s easier for you to believe that team, which played and beat majorly talented teams throughout the year, was psyched out. Hahahaha.

    And don’t confuse that team with this one, completely different. This team doesn’t get psyched out either. They’ve proved that with their B1G season. Nothing wrong with their mental attitude, at least not IMO.

  • IUMIKE1

    As bad as I hate to say it, I’ll have to admit I’ll be pulling for PUke. I have gotten to the point that I detest the Bucky Badger Boys just as badly as PUke, especially during a season when we beat them, won the B1G outright, and got jobbed the way we did at Buckyland, or as a friend of mine put it, Rape Arena North.

  • just a fan

    I agree with you in many ways, but want to add that (in my opinion) it’s the 180 degree emphasis on defense. Specifically, playing help defense, not switching zone-to-man seemingly in the middle of a possession, playing hard nosed defense. How many fewer open drives to the basket have we seen this year–anyone have a count? Last few years we probably all screamed at our tv screens when an opponent made an uncontested drive–doesn’t happen much anymore, does it? What I’ll give CTC is that his defensive philosophy changed that 180, that’s growing as a coach..or maybe it’s that he was listening , would you say? There are some pretty good comment posters on this forum, maybe they got through.

  • Hoosier@theLake

    Thanks for the points in this thread. I have hated hearing the “better without Blackmon” assertion. I don’t buy it for all the reason articulated here. Additionally, I’m a JBJ fan, and he needs to know he has fans who don’t believe the success of IU has been due to him being out. I’m sure the team doesn’t feel that way! I look forward to his full recovery, and impact at IU offensively & defensively.

  • Sarasota Hoosier

    Good point, but I still lean on team defense as bigger contributor; TW still gets victimized when he is forced to guard in isolation one on one; TB has not been the shot blocker everyone predicted before season started, again due to trying to keep him out of foul trouble. OG and JM are great individual defenders, I have always thought Yogi was good defender (remember Nic Stauskis?) but this year is great. MB is not a great individual defender, but man can he play help defense. CH has been victimized many times one on one this year, but again, he gets the whole double team concept when a player turns his back. I go back to what would happen if IU had to guard a team full court man to man without traps and double teams? Their individual defensive abilities would be below par. Our team defense is great, best I have seen in many years, including the 2012-13 team. Go Hoosiers!

  • calbert40

    Well, there are a lot of intelligent poster on this site (even a couple with whom I usually disagree!). However, I can say with a high degree of certainty that Crean doesn’t read any fan sites. He used to be very visible on social media, but he shut that off nearly completely. He has said that they stopped listening to the detractors.

    Still, there is an obvious difference with this team’s D. What would be interesting to me to find out would be whether Crean devised the man-zone-man D in response to his team’s unwillingness to play aggressive man D, or whether he truly had a change of heart on that side of the ball. I would bet that they are finally playing the scheme that he wanted them to play all along.

  • Ole Man

    LOL!. And I wouldn’t trust any team from the Big 12

  • I guess what’s really turned me against them is listening to the BS flowing from the BTN guys about how great Bucky is this year and what a fantastic turn around they’ve had.. and I keep thinking the way we got the ‘shaft’ up there.. And for that matter so did MSU. There was like a 19 free throw difference in favor of Wisky in that game as well.. Now you even those two out and all at once Wisky’s year becomes good but not nearly as fantastic as they try to make it.
    The other nigt I was listening to that BTN basketball Report and one of the guys was starting to extoll on the virtues of IU.. and the other guy (can’t recall his name0 cut him off and started talking about what is really unbelievable is Wisconsin and the turn around Gard has put together and then just went on and on about Wisconsin. They never did get back to talking IU and our great season.. I just get so tired of them always kissing Wisconsin’s a$$ and for a while it was Maryland.. and still is MSU.. but I almost think they spend more time weaving crap about Wisky than almost anybody else…. Ok, enough of my rant for now… but I really get tired of it.

  • You’re right, but I think the strongest point you mentioned is the ‘post presence’ this year, and of course the defense. We did not plat D like this, last year.

  • Koko

    Very true…..that conference is loaded.

  • Ole Man

    Actually, I meant that the conference was overrated.

  • Koko

    Oh okay….they are loaded with a few teams playing well……I would be very nervous having to play Texas in the tournament. I’m no Kansas fan but they are a team I’m sure many will pick in their brackets to win it all. And who are you thinking of to be national champs this year? Me?…..I have no idea…..lol.

  • Ole Man

    I have no clue. I have watched UNC on TV and in person, and I was not all that impressed.
    Kansas, maybe?

  • millzy32

    Definitely agree. It happens every season. Big12 is overrated and the SEC is actually underrated. Everyone thinks the SEC has a bunch of slouches but that was the case last year too and you watch they’ll have several teams in the Sweet Sixteen and you’ll be like where did they come from? Then with Big 12 Kansas will have an off night and Okie Hield will have a bad night and they’ll be gone and everyone will say wow I thought they were invincible.

  • Ole Man

    Yep! But this year I think even the SEC is overrated. I’ve watched their co-champs, A&M, and they’d be lucky to be 6th or 7th this year in the Big Ten!
    pUKe is okay, although Ulis is way overrated.
    And Vandy may finally be playing up to their preseason expectations.