Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Crean time

So I guess we can assume FireCrean.com is not a thing at the moment.

Not now, not after Tom Crean swept the Big Ten Coach of the Year honors, from media and everyone else. And without a quibble, because who was picking Crean's Hoosiers to win the Big Ten by three games after getting (sun)burned in Maui and baked to a golden brown by Duke?

Four months later all of that is as distant as the Punic Wars to everyone but the pocket-protector crowd that computes the hallowed RPI, because apparently what happened in the Punic Wars is still, you know, relevant. On the other hand, that Indiana isn't remotely the same team it was in November is apparently not relevant.

And the Hoosiers aren't that team. You can credit two people for that: Crean and his senior guard, Yogi Ferrell.

After the two losses in Hawaii he threw down the gauntlet and Ferrell picked it up, and the rest is the rest. The Hoosiers got steadily better, particularly on the defensive end. They still are not a perfect team, but no one in the country is this year. What they are is a team that, on its best nights, shares the basketball, attacks the rim, hits the open 3 and contests as much as is possible at the other end.

What they are is a team you can look at and say, "That's a well-coached team."

By all accounts, that's partly a product of Crean turning the reins over to Ferrell and getting out of the way when necessary, two instincts that are antithetical to his driven nature. A few years back, shortly after Crean had come to town, my sister-in-law wound up on a student bus trip with him, because Crean's daughter and my sister-in-law's daughter were the same age. He was a nice guy, she reported. But, lord, was he wired tight.

How hard must it have been for him to recognize that he had to let go a little bit? That he had to put this team in the hands of its senior captain? That he had to step back -- not a lot, just a smidge, but still step back?

That he did that, and that the Hoosiers became a team that mainly tore through its backloaded conference schedule, is a credit to him. This has been his finest coaching hour so far. And it illuminates that, for the all the criticism that has rained down on his head in his eight years in Bloomington, he's been pretty damn successful: Two Big Ten titles in four years, 25 or more victories in three of the last five seasons.

That's a great run. That's an infinitely better run than Bob Knight had the last five years he was in Bloomington, even as Knight's shadow still looms over the program, and over Crean. And probably always will until Crean gets the Hoosiers to a couple of Final Fours, and hangs a banner or two.

Are his Hoosiers really the best team in the Big Ten right now? Probably not. Michigan State is probably that as long as Denzel Valentine is around. But at their best -- and you saw that on Sunday, when they utterly dismantled a Maryland team that might have the best talent in the conference -- the Hoosiers can play with anyone. Especially this year.

No one would have predicted that in November, when FireCrean.com was still a thing. Which is why FireCrean is now Coach of the Year Crean.


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