Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Season Obituaries: Indiana

Year Three of the Official Crean Rebuilding Project has now concluded, and while there has been definite improvement since 2008-09, how could there not be? The Hoosiers team three seasons ago was one perhaps the worst in the Big Ten over the past decade, winning one conference game and only five games total during the year. That's not on Crean; no coach that ever lived could have made that Indiana team competitive in the wake of the Sampson implosion. Much like Rich Rodriguez at Michigan, Crean took over a program that was elite only in heritage, and the stunning drop-off in year one should not be held against him.

And it's not as though there have been no green shoots since then. The 2009 recruiting class was an accomplishment considering how bad Indiana was; the 2011 class looks even more promising; the 2013 class is downright Calipari-like in its potential. The 2008 team would not have been within ten points of the 2011 versions of Michigan or Illinois, teams Indiana defeated this season. And there were deceptively competitive games along the way, including a contest against Final Four-bound Kentucky that was much closer than the score might indicate.

Still, what has been the crowning moment in Indiana basketball during the Crean era? A win over a disappointing 2011 Illinois team at home (an Illinois team that won by 30+ later in the season in Champaign)? A 20 point victory over Michigan before the Wolverines began their climb to respectability? The biggest headlines have come from recruiting, not on the court, and while the results in April have been encouraging, they haven't meant anything in February, much less March.

I made an unfavorable comparison to Iowa in the previous obituary, but Indiana has several things going for them the Hawkeyes never will. For one thing, they are Indiana; those five national championships aren't getting taken down from the rafters any time soon. Recruits are still attracted to the Crimson and Cream, and fans have shown a remarkable patience during the rebuilding (scenes like the Orange Krush takeover of Carver-Hawkeye Arena are unfathomable at Assembly Hall).

The time for moral victories is over, however. The 2011 recruiting class were freshmen in high school last time Indiana made the tournament; the 2013 class was in junior high. After a while, kids forget that being Indiana means something beyond Big Ten also-ran. Heckling a batter who gets two strikes is silly, because the at-bat isn't over. Crean is down in the count; he still has pitches coming, but he doesn't have any left to take. That's a lot of pressure for a coach who, while not without returning talent, is hoping for young players to make an impression in a notoriously physical conference.