Reading between the lines

  • 09/23/2010 11:04 pm in

BLOOMINGTON — Tom Crean has started speaking in past tense. It’s reasoned, measured and cautious, sure, but when Crean preached the rebuilding gospel that has endeared him to IU fans over the past 2 1/2 years Thursday night at the IU Auditorium, he suddenly began referring to so many of the Hoosiers’ obstacles much the same way America is supposed to now refer to the recession.

“Every day it’s been about rebuilding or restoring, however you want to look at it, this great program back to those great heights,” Crean said.

By this point, there’s no need for me to rehash or you to relive what’s gone on since February of 2008. That would be wasted space. But as his team has taken various steps — and often stumbled between them — Crean has offered both rallying cries and sobering, realistic assessments of the Hoosiers trials, in measures almost equal.

Thursday night, he began to speak like a man who knows that, at some important levels, his team has turned a corner.

“People have gotten used to seeing Indiana being down. … Our opponents, they don’t want it to come back,” Crean said. “They like knocking Indiana. They like the 19 Fs and all the drug tests failed. They like that Indiana.”

Perhaps Crean’s point, albeit one made abstractly, is that “that Indiana” is finally becoming a thing of the past.

There’s significant reason for optimism in Bloomington this fall. The non-conference schedule, while respectable, is by no means unbearable, and it’s easy to envision Indiana entering Big Ten play with 10 wins already on its ledger. The roster turnover and inexperience that marked the last two seasons is significantly lessened by the return of all but three players from last year’s team, and both Crean and his charges have talked of a productive offseason in the weight room.

This isn’t a beating of the drum for dreams too lofty. The NCAA Tournament would be a long, long shot for this team, though some sort of postseason action really isn’t out of the question.

Sports types who prefer Bill Parcells are fond of his quote: “You are what your record says you are.” That’s another way of saying there are questions about this team (or any team) we won’t be able to answer without hard evidence, something only available against live competition.

But Tom Crean certainly can, at least to a more educated degree. No one would be more qualified to measure the improvement Indiana has made in the last two years not just because he is their coach, but because the Hoosiers have had to come such a long way. So when Crean begins referring to the problems of his program like as though they are passing — like some great fever finally beginning to break — Hoosier nation ought take notice.

This proverbial, arduous road Indiana has traveled is not yet run out. The Hoosiers will still struggle this year with mistakes of inexperience and mismatches of size and strength. Just because Indiana got stronger and faster in the offseason doesn’t mean Michigan State didn’t either, or Purdue, or Ohio State. When Crean preaches better decision-making, when he hammers home a need for more toughness on defense, and on the glass, he says these things not in the same philosophical way he once spoke about rebuilding a culture.

But as the problems, the questions and the answers get more specific, so too can the expectations. Without putting too much pressure on his team, without making bold statements or sounding like some sort of basketball Don Quixote, Crean has begun raising those expectations, slowly but surely, toward levels with which Indiana fans are far more familiar. And comfortable.

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