BOZICH | Indiana's improvement has placed Crean critics on mute (for now)
The howling that surrounded Tom Crean after Indiana lost to Wake Forest, UNLV and Duke has subsided during the Hoosiers current 11-game winning streak.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The Tom Crean bashing has paused. But it has not finished.
I’m uncomfortable with most college basketball predictions this season. I’m confident of that one.
Let Crean lose one game that Indiana is not supposed to lose. The howling will whip up as harshly as ever about his A) substitution patterns; B) defensive alignments; C) hurry-up offense; D) pacing and clapping or E) all of the above.
That’s life at Indiana, where the gap between Final Four appearance sits at 13 puzzling seasons and growing.
The Hoosiers (16-3) will attempt to stretch their winning streak to a dozen Saturday at noon in Assembly Hall against Northwestern. They can improve their record to 7-0 in the Big Ten, pinched against Iowa at the top of the league.
Winning 12 straight regular-season games would be noteworthy, especially during a season where five programs have failed to hold the No. 1 rating longer than four weeks – and four of the top six teams in the current AP Top 25 have lost this week.
We all know The Crean Critics will refuse to exhale until he wins at least four in a row in the NCAA Tournament at Indiana. A program that has always prominently displayed its five NCAA championship banners treasures winning streaks in March, not January.
But it’s unfair to overlook the rest of the story:
Over the last 51 days Crean has tuned out the unrelenting noise and delivered solid work that should be recognized not dismissed.
He has upgraded the Indiana defense that even Dick Vitale was howling about on Dec. 2 after IU surrendered 94 points and lost to Duke by 20. The record, according to Ken Pomeroy’s formula, shows that Indiana has advanced more than 75 spots in team defensive efficiency.
This statistic deserves a stand-alone paragraph:
Crean’s team ranks 52nd nationally in defensive efficiency – one spot ahead of North Carolina (a legitimate national title contender), eight ahead of defense-oriented Wisconsin and 20 ahead of unbeaten SMU and its masterful Hall of Fame coach, Larry Brown.
None of Indiana’s six Big Ten opponents has averaged one point per possession. Before you correctly note that Indiana has yet to play any of the top Big Ten contenders, understand that the Hoosiers gave up 1.09 points per possession against Kennesaw State, 1.11 against Wake Forest and 1.52 in the Duke debacle.
Indiana has shown it can guard with the right pieces and mindset.
When Crean was not being questioned about IU’s defense, he was being asked why his players handled the basketball as if was coated with olive oil – 20 turnovers against Austin Peay, 21 against UNLV and 17 against IPFW.
Indiana has averaged a dozen turnovers in its last three games against Ohio State, Minnesota and Illinois, while starting two guards, instead of three.
Indiana has shown it can value the basketball -- and why that matters.
Crean has developed Thomas Bryant into one of most productive freshman centers in the country.
According to Scout.com, Bryant was ranked the seventh best center prospect in the Class of 2015, trailing Skal Labissiere, (No. 1, Kentucky), Diamond Stone, (No. 6, Maryland), Stephen Zimmerman (No. 8, UNLV), Cheick Diallo (No. 9, Kansas), Caleb Swanigan, (No. 14, Purdue) and Chase Jeter (No. 15, Duke).
Only Stone (13.5) is averaging more points per game than Bryant (11.9) in that seven-freshman group – and Bryant is also averaging more rebounds (5.5) than Labissiere, Diallo and Jeter.
Crean has coached Yogi Ferrell into the best combination scoring/distributing point guard in the Big Ten – while handling the absence of James Blackmon Jr., the team’s second-leading scorer until he tore a ligament in his right knee.
He has turned OG Anunoby, a recruit ranked No. 280 by one rating service, into a solid rotation piece, a confident freshman who contributes on offense, defense and the glass. That is development. It is also player evaluation, something Crean showed with Victor Oladipo and Will Sheehey.
He outmaneuvered Iowa State to convince Michigan transfer Max Bielfeldt into playing his final season at IU, turning him into a reliable backup center and power forward.
The development work Crean and his staff have done with Nick Zeisloft, Collin Hartman and Juwan Morgan also make the list. IU’s sparkling academic record has become an annual (and overlooked) achievement.
Don’t expect to read much about that from the national media folks. Most couldn’t find Assembly Hall without leaning hard on their GPS. But they are always eager to showcase a photo of Crean with a pained expression while putting his name at the absolute top of those silly Hot Seat lists.
That will happen again as soon as Indiana loses a game the Hoosiers are not supposed to lose, the way most college basketball teams have lost games they were not supposed to lose during this wacky season.
But until it does, reasonable people know what is happening around this 16-3 Indiana basketball team:
Tom Crean has done some of the best overall work of his career. It shouldn’t be that difficult to recognize or say.
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