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Tom Crean: not a finished product, but evolving with Indiana

Tom Crean has been a complicated coach to measure in moments of defeat and humiliation.

This week, he’s a complicated coach to measure in a moment of shining triumph.

Crean’s Indiana Hoosiers knocked out John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats on Saturday in the NCAA tournament. Crean didn’t merely avenge a loss to Calipari in the 2012 Sweet 16; he took down one of the sport’s best March coaches and beat a fierce regional rival in a matchup of storied basketball schools rooted in states that are obsessed with the college game. When you beat Kentucky at Indiana, it’s always a big deal; magnify that exponentially when the NCAA tournament is the setting for a conquest of the Cats.

In the wake of such a victory, it is easy to think that Crean’s tenure at Indiana will only go up from here. After all, following his first Sweet 16 season in Bloomington in 2012, he then led Indiana to a No. 1 NCAA tournament seed in 2013. However, that inclination — understandable from several vantage points — seems premature. When Yogi Ferrell is no longer around, Crean will lose the man who enabled him to spend zero time worrying about who brings the ball up the court and gets the Hoosiers into their halfcourt sets. That becomes a new project next season, and so the IU horizon still owns a measure of uncertainty.

Yet, in this complicated portrayal of a complex coaching career, Crean now faces a very pleasant kind of uncertainty: How much higher can he take the Hoosiers?

The uncertainty following the 2013 through 2015 seasons was marked more by this question: Has Crean permanently lost his chance to return Indiana to the Final Four?

There’s no need for revisionist history here: A year ago, Crean would have been out of town, pink slip in hand, if a large portion of the Indiana fan base had its way. However, athletic director Fred Glass has been in Crean’s corner, and the buyout attached to his contract was too substantial for IU to bite.

In retrospect, the injury to James Blackmon, Jr., in the midst of a rocky season, realigned the Indiana lineup and refocused Crean’s choices in ways which perfectly configured the Hoosiers’ personnel. Crean got lucky, but he maximized the value of that luck.

This is where the evaluation of Crean — like other complicated coaches — becomes even more difficult.

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Some great coaches simply claimed greatness and did not arrive at an “escape from the jaws of death” moment upon which their ascendancies depended.

Think of Bobby Cremins, whose Final Four appearance at Georgia Tech depended on a clock-buzzer error against Michigan State in 1990. Think of Jim Valvano, who would not have become the cultural figure he became had Pepperdine not missed tons of front ends of 1-and-1s in Corvallis, Oregon, in 1983. 

In that same piece just linked to, Mike Montgomery of Stanford would never have made the Final Four if not for yet another collapse by a Jim Harrick-coached team. Speaking of Harrick — who led the 1983 Pepperdine squad and the 1998 Rhode Island team — he never would have won a national title had Tyus Edney not made the coast-to-coast dash against Missouri in 1995.

Lute Olson never would have won a national title had his upstart bunch of youngsters — a year before ripening into an elite team — not stunned Kansas, North Carolina, and Kentucky (three No. 1 seeds) to win the 1997 NCAA Tournament.

Those are just some examples of coaching careers which are viewed in substantially different terms because of highly improbable occurrences that broke in a favorable direction. The Blackmon injury could become the same for Crean. He wouldn’t be the first coach to make full use of a big break, and he won’t be the last. That he got lucky should not be seen as a diminishment; coaches live on the precipice of good and bad luck in this sport all the time, and certainly a lot more than talk-radio hosts would care to admit.

This is one of the fascinating components of Tom Crean’s continuing story, and why it’s so fascinating.

Here’s another dimension of the story which is so compelling: While beating Calipari in March is nothing less than a substantial achievement, it is only one threshold Crean has crossed with IU. He has to cross another one at some point, and he’ll get a chance to do so this Friday against North Carolina: Make the Elite Eight with the Hoosiers.

Crean is in his eighth season at IU. The first three seasons were spent cleaning up the mess Kelvin Sampson left behind, of course, so in many ways, Crean is in his “fifth” go-round with Indiana. Crean knows that sustained excellence is the standard at Indiana, but the pursuit of something sustained will soon depend on making at least one deeper run beyond the Sweet 16.

Remember: After the 2013 flameout against Syracuse and the 2-3 zone Crean had no idea how to handle, Indiana suffered through two difficult seasons in 2014 and 2015. This year, being a 5 seed against a 1 seed means all the pressure to win falls on Roy Williams and North Carolina. In the future, however, Indiana is expected to not only become the 1 seed it was in 2013, but to make the Final Four and re-establish the fortress on a hill which Bobby Knight erected in Bloomington.

If we’re sitting here two years from now, and Indiana has failed to make the Elite Eight while losing on the first weekend of the 2017 and 2018 NCAA Tournaments, the mood in Hoosier Country would almost assuredly be very dark, barring a specific set of mitigating circumstances.

Coaches, players, all competitors reach moments — more precisely, achievements — when they clearly do cross certain thresholds and discard negative labels forever.

The fascinatingly complicated part of the Tom Crean story is that while he’s certainly evolving as a coach, it’s not as though he’s cleared the biggest hurdles on his way to stardom in the coaching profession.

Those hurdles still lie ahead… but there’s more reason than before to believe Crean can and will clear them.

Will he? That’s why we watch. That’s why we care.

*

Indiana fans were always all for you, Tom Crean. Then they had reason to doubt.

Now they have reason to believe again.

Where will the road lead next? Tune in Friday against Carolina.

Matt Zemek

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.

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