Personal reflection on Indiana, Crean

Jan 22, 2015; Bloomington, IN, USA; Indiana Hoosier fans cheer during a game against the Maryland Terrapins at Assembly Hall. Indiana defeats Maryland 89-70. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 22, 2015; Bloomington, IN, USA; Indiana Hoosier fans cheer during a game against the Maryland Terrapins at Assembly Hall. Indiana defeats Maryland 89-70. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports /

My introduction to the Indiana Basketball program was the 2002 NCAA championship game where I was permitted to stay up late and watch. Being ten years old and on a school night, this was a big deal. While I was ultimately disappointed that they lost, I will never forget the excitement.

The next time I felt that fired up was during the Kelvin Sampson era. My grandfather took me to my first game, though I don’t recall who they were playing. What I do remember is the starter introductions, the roar of the Assembly Hall crowd, and the way that DJ White and Eric Gordon commanded the court. Then the revealing of Kelvin Sampson’s recruiting violations embarrassed the program.

Credit: Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports /

Enter Tom Crean. While I did not know much about the new coach from Marquette, the buzz around town was insane. The news about almost every single player leaving the program seemed like a death sentence, but locals were still confident that he was the guy to lift the program. When Crean took over, his roster consisted of two walk-ons. Everyone knew that the first couple seasons would be rough, but this was Indiana, and fans were not used to failure.

By the time I was a freshman at Indiana University I was ready for success, again. The basketball team had only won 28 games in three seasons, and only eight of those were during conference play. There was a lot of potential on the roster but they had yet to reach it. They were nowhere near being ranked despite the savior from Washington, Indiana, Cody Zeller arriving. A couple games in, it was obvious that the team was miles ahead of the previous seasons’.

Everything changed after Christian Watford hit the buzzer-beating three-pointer to beat #1 Kentucky. I was in the balcony because I was a freshman, but I recall sprinting downstairs to rush the court. The atmosphere would suggest that they had just won the national title, but what it really represented was the return of the program. The season ended with Kentucky getting their revenge by eliminating us in the Sweet 16, but it was undoubtedly a success.

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If Indiana was going to win a national title, it was the following year during the 2012-13 season. Cody Zeller elected to return and Victor Oladipo was emerging as one of the best players in the nation. Sharpshooters Jordan Hulls and Christian Watford were giving defenses headaches, and Will Sheehey became one of the best 6th men in the country. They spent a good amount of time at #1 and were tearing through the competition. It was the most exciting I have ever seen the program, until they weren’t. They were absolutely outclassed by Syracuse in the Sweet 16. Syracuse was a great team that year, but Indiana had everything going for them, and in no way should have been blown out.

After losing Zeller, Hulls, Oladipo, and Watford, there wasn’t much hope. Yogi Ferrell did what he could, but the supporting cast simply wasn’t there. The next two years saw Indiana go 17-15 and 20-14, respectively. Fans started to turn on Crean. Some wondered why they weren’t securing some of the nation’s top recruits and the others began to question his coaching strategies. Crean rotates a lot of players, and when most of them aren’t Big Ten quality, it becomes increasingly frustrating. Campus was divided into Crean lovers and haters. Every team goes through lulls, Kentucky were eliminated in the first round of the NIT in 2013, but at least they won the NCAA title the previous year. Hoosier fans were desperate to win another title, it had been quite some time, and they needed someone to blame.

Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports /

Last preseason saw the Hoosiers ranked in the top 25. Yogi Ferrell, Troy Williams, and then freshman Thomas Bryant were all showing extreme potential. However, their pre-conference schedule was a disaster. They lost to both St. Johns and UNLV in the Maui Invitational, and then were slaughtered by Duke at Cameron.

If resentment for Crean already existed, it was now at an all-time high. People were calling for him to be fired, he was being attacked by the media, and even heckled at his son’s high school basketball games. He responded by winning 14 of his next 15 games, and then continued an impressive run to win the Big Ten regular season title. The defense and bench both improved, and the offense was rolling. They beat Kentucky in the tournament, and while they lost to North Carolina, again in the Sweet 16, fans were for the most part back on Crean’s side.

The Crean era has been a rollercoaster. While I don’t believe all of the hate he received was warranted, I will admit that it was hard not to get caught up in the mob mentality. With the football team being so bad, basketball was really all we had. I feel as though the hate directed toward Crean had less to do with the actual success of the program and more so fans being so anxious to get back to national title contention. The Hoosier faithful got a taste of what it was like to be on top, and then refused to accept anything less.

I have been a Hoosier alumni for a year now, and after having the chance to watch the program away from greedy students, have found a new appreciation for Crean and the current state of the program. While Indiana hasn’t reached a national championship since 2002 when I was just starting to understand what it meant to be a Hoosier, they have enjoyed plenty of success that deserves praise. Crean has a knack for recruiting extremely likable players and runs an offense that is a pleasure to watch. I can’t think of another coach, within reason, that I’d rather have – though I’ve said that before.