Tom Crean faces a tough test tonight as the Hoosiers play North Carolina with a trip to the Elite Eight on the line. Crean has been here before — twice — with the Hoosiers, but has never been able to advance beyond the Sweet Sixteen threshold.
That makes tonight a big game. If Indiana wins, this will be the biggest victory of Crean’s eight-year reign running the program. If Indiana loses, this game will join the Kentucky loss in 2012 and the loss to Syracuse in 2013 as its most disappointing moments.
There is a belief that a switch flipped for Crean and his program this season. Something happened to make Indiana different from the team it was during Crean’s first seven seasons in Bloomington. If it did, a win tonight would serve as tangible evidence. A loss will bring a return to doubt that Indiana can ever return to sustained relevance in college basketball.
Yes, this is a big game, but a win would be the biggest at IU for Crean — including the Watford game against Kentucky in 2011.
Here are nine reasons why:
9. How better to celebrate his 50th birthday than with a win? Crean turns 50 today, and this day will be forever remembered in the Crean household because of the result of this game. If Indiana wins, Crean and his family will recall the day their father and husband turned 50 with joy. If they lose, Crean’s 50th birthday will never be spoken of again – at least not in front of Tom.
8. Distancing the Hoosiers from Butler and Purdue will benefit Indiana and Crean in many ways. Butler’s back-to-back runs to the NCAA Champions Games in 2010 and 2011 established the Bulldogs as the program in Indiana with the best chance to make a deep March run. That affected the economics of collegiate athletics in Indiana as Butler migrated from the Horizon League to the A-10 and then the Big East. Today, high school recruits see Purdue and Butler as lateral if not superior to Indiana. A run by Indiana beyond the Sweet Sixteen would help re-establish the Hoosiers as Indiana’s team.
7. Yogi deserves to be remembered as a winner. I know this isn’t a Tom Crean reason, but Ferrell has grown tremendously as a leader and defender. Without a win tonight, he will be remembered more for his statistical excellence than the results of that great four-year run. That would be a shame.
6. Attrition might cause backslide in 2017. Yogi Ferrell, Nick Zeisloft, Ryan Burton, and Max Bielfeldt will be gone next year. OG Anunoby, Thomas Bryant, and Troy Williams might test the waters by declaring for the NBA Draft. If two of those three leave early, who is going to play for the Hoosiers next season? It’s one thing to have five significant contributors, including one all-time great, leave a Final Four team. It’s another when a Sweet Sixteen is all that’s left to keep a fanbase warm during a roster renovation. Collin Hartman, James Blackmon Jr., Josh Newkirk, and Juwan Morgan are nice players, but hardly the nucleus of the 2016 team.
5. Big Ten championships are nice, but March is where legacies are etched. Who won the Big Ten regular season championship in 2008, 2011, or 2014? I’m not sure either. It’s not that finishing first in the Big Ten is meaningless. It just isn’t memorable – except in the mind of coaches. March success is where memories are made. For Crean led Indiana teams, those memories are in losses to Syracuse, Wichita State, and Kentucky. The win against Kentucky last Saturday was great, but without using it as a springboard toward something greater, the loss will outshine the win. Not sure that’s fair, but it’s a fact.
4. Elite programs produce elite results. There are many good basketball programs, and there are just a few that can be rightfully described as elite. To be viewed as a peer of Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan State, and Louisville you have to advance deep into the NCAA Tournament as often as not. Now and again, an early exit in a 15 vs. 2 as Sparty did this year and Duke did in 2012 is tolerable as long as trips to the Final Four come along every three or four years and a banner is hung every seven to 10 years. if Indiana wants to confer upon itself a status of something better than good, the Hoosiers need to win a game like tonight.
3. Recruits want chance to play in Final Four. Current high school juniors were two or three years old in 2002 – the last time Indiana played in a Final Four. They have no cognitive memory of the win against Oklahoma or the loss versus Maryland. Here’s how long ago that weekend in Atlanta is. In 2002, Kelvin Sampson took Oklahoma to the Final Four too, and was four years from being hired at Indiana. Dan Dakich accepted the job to coach West Virginia. Tom Crean was six years from becoming IU’s coach. Bob Knight had been fired only 18 months prior. 2002 was a long, long time ago. Recruits want to go where success is likely if not assured, and stories of 2002 do not resonate with them.
2. Leaves Hoosiers a win vs. Wisconsin or Notre Dame from Final Four. If Indiana can send the North Carolina Tar Heels back to Chapel Hill, the Hoosiers will be a win against a team they beat earlier this season from the Final Four. That would be a hell of an accomplishment for a team that appeared headed in a very different direction 14 weeks ago. To suffer disappointments and respond with grit and collective belief is a hell of an experience to enjoy as a very young adult.
1. Advancing another level shows tangible evidence of growth. Indiana has been to the Sweet Sixteen three times in eight seasons under Crean. While Indiana fans prefer the Sweet Sixteen to crapping out in an earlier round, if the Hoosiers show again that level is where the program peaks, fans will continue to chafe at the notion of Crean’s continued leadership in Bloomington. Villanova’s Jay Wright is thought to be a really good coach, but 2016 marked the first time since 2009 that the Wildcats made it to the Sweet Sixteen. This is Crean’s third trip since 2012. Not stumping for a Crean extension, just stating facts.
Kent Sterling hosts the fastest growing sports talk show in Indianapolis on CBS Sports 1430 every weekday from 3 p.m.-6 p.m., and writes about Indiana sports at kentsterling.com.