|Crean got his first 20-win season in five years tonight. (US PRESSWIRE)|
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — There are checkmarks to this season (which now seems like, no matter what happens come March, will be one of the most rewarding Tom Crean will ever have) and the most significant one so far came Wednesday night.
The first checkmark, the one no one talks about, was getting out of November with an undefeated record. That was certainly a surprise lost amid the college and pro football and other early-season storylines in college basketball. Then came the Christian Watford 3 to beat Kentucky (still the only loss UK has this season), a dynamite explosion of a shot that’s already considered among the biggest shots in the history of Indiana University basketball. After that, the New Year’s Eve 74-70 home win over Big Ten favorite Ohio State.
Wednesday night brought Crean a 71-66 win over Northwestern, and thus a 20-win season, his first at Indiana in four years. There was a fuss, a real big fuss, made about the three 20-loss seasons that came before this unprecedented lopsided one in the opposite direction for Crean and his Crimson crew. It came against the perfect opponent, too. Northwestern had caused Crean’s hair to act as a stress doll in years past. His clubs were 1-6 against the Wildcats prior to Wednesday night. Those younger, greener Hoosiers couldn’t defend NU, couldn’t outsmart Bill Carmody’s crew and weren’t good enough to muscle their way past them.
Not Wednesday night. Crean was thrilled with the W not just because it was a win, but because, so many times in a two-hour span, his defense came up with a play to stymie Northwestern’s deceitful attack. And yet the Wildcats were still successful for a large portion of the night. Stopping the slicing backdoor cuts at a 50-percent rate instead of a 65-percent rate is a huge difference against Northwestern. Crean’s team prepared and had enough talent, stamina and discipline to get one of those proud, finally-we-DID-this games, the celebrations and accomplishments that carry more weight in the locker room than with the fan base.
You might think, Oh, it’s just Northwestern. But think about the 1-6 record and the 20-loss seasons and the calls for Crean’s job two years into this tenure. Wins over Kentucky and Ohio State are enthralling and can fly a man home, but it’s because they are expected. Sticking to task and finally — fin-a-lly — winning the way you want to against a team that’s a nightmare of a matchup: just as rewarding.
The Hoosiers came up with answers, but they also came out of the tunnel with Cody Zeller, a component blatantly missing prior to this season. The Indiana freshman who’s playing like one of the five best in the nation had 23 points and seven boards on 9-of-11 shooting in — well isn’t that nice — 30 minutes of play. (There was foul trouble for Zeller, but Victor Oladipo and Christian Watford each contributed 12.)
“It’s the spirit of the defense,” Crean said. "That spirit of the defense and how our attitude has changed."
This team reminds him of his 2005-06 Marquette squad. Crean wears the NCAA tournament watch from that season. It's a simple ticker with a leather strap and gold trim. Without looking closely, you'd never know it was anything special But it's been Crean's reminder this year that he once had a similar team do so much when, initially, little was anticipated. That '05-'06 group was picked to finish 12th in the Big East. Ultimate result? A 10-6 year in the league, a 20-11 record and a seven seed in the tournament. It fell in the first round to Alabama.
This team’s more talented than that group but it’s exceeding expectations just the same.
“[Getting to 20 wins] is not an exclamation point … but it is a bench mark,” he said.
Though it was already going, Indiana essentially locked up a tournament bid Wednesday night. It’s on course to earn a bid that gives it geographic favoritism (reward to the top five seeds in each region) when the bracket is released in less than a month.
It’s a talented group that’s gotten punched in the Big Ten and regressed, somewhat, at some times, to the team it was expected to be this season. More often than not, it’s played beyond that, though. Crean’s coaching himself to a memorable season no matter the outcome.
“We keep getting better. I keep telling people that,” he said.
Many didn’t or still don’t believe that. But the evidence is mountain and Indiana’s now too talented, too experience and too promising to dip back down to those first three years. But no one wants to talk about those 20-losses seasons now.
Crean wouldn’t mind having the conversation. Tangible culmination took place at Assembly Hall Wednesday night. Indiana's made it's big turn toward sustained national relevance and likely continued success. Whatever happens from now through the end of March is more for the scrapbook in an unforgettable year for this program and its grinder of a coach.