LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – What Tubby Smith faced at Kentucky is what Tom Crean confronts at Indiana: An uneasy brew of fan anger and apathy.

The comparison to the conclusion of Smith’s stay at Kentucky is the most direct way to describe the strange mixture of background noise and silence that surrounds Crean as he prepares his ninth IU team for the Big Ten Tournament Thursday in Washington D.C.

Background noise as in Crean’s name keeps flashing on the candidate list at Missouri, the way Smith’s name percolated around openings before he left an uneasy situation at UK for Minnesota a decade ago.

Silence as in there has not been a peep of support for Crean from IU athletic director Fred Glass as the Hoosiers stumbled through the last two months of their 17-14 season. Telling? I believe so. Glass publicly silenced the skeptics the 27 other times Crean was getting the business from IU fans. Not this time.

Chatter as in the growing grumbling from Indiana fans who have seen enough opponent points off turnovers, in-state recruiting whiffs and losses to Northwestern to last a lifetime.

Silence as in few people are ready to say that a Crean move to Missouri (or elsewhere) is preposterous. Even fewer are advocating that his contract be extended beyond the three remaining seasons, which seems essential if he expects to recruit.

In Year Nine at Indiana, Crean is positioned where Smith was in Year Ten at Kentucky, as a coach who has lost the faith of more members of a robust fan base every winter. The loss of games is an issue for Crean. The loss of faith is a topic for Glass.

At Kentucky, Smith eventually heard enough that he departed, a decision that was the proper turn of the page for both sides. Is that the flight plan Crean will follow?

The college basketball world wonders.

Like Smith, Crean is a 5-star person and worker, a powerful advocate for his players and Indiana University, a tireless contributor in the community.

You won’t find a scandal on his resume or at the dormitory where his players live. Serial knuckleheads have usually finished their careers elsewhere.

When recruits ask Crean what is – cough -- available – cough -- beyond a scholarship at Indiana, he has told several to take their requests elsewhere. He’s done his work the right way and brought Indiana back from the toxic times of Kelvin Sampson – and been paid handsomely to do it.

But it’s March 7.

You know what matters in March – and it’s not the stuff that athletic directors say at introductory press conferences or the information that I mentioned to fill the opening of this column.

NCAA Tournament victories matter. Final Fours matter more. National championships matter most.

Tom Crean has won at Indiana, delivering a winning percentage of .672 the last six seasons. A Big Ten regular-season title in 2013, Indiana’s first in 11 years. He backed it up by doing that again last season.

To me, the Big Ten titles were substantial achievements. To others, they’re not – not without follow-up celebrations in March.

March has not been all high-fives for Crean, just the way it wasn’t for Smith, at least not after Tubby delivered that national title in 1998, his first season in Lexington.

Crean’s NCAA Tournament record is an uneventful 6-4. There have been no Final Fours or Elite Eights – and the Hoosiers’ 2013 Sweet Sixteen stumble against Syracuse was the kind of ugly loss that sticks to a coach like bubble gum on his sneakers.

It’s unfair to blame only Crean for the three-decade basketball malaise at Indiana. Others deserve credit, too, when a program with five national titles has not sniffed the Final Four since 2002 or hoisted the trophy since 1987.

But three decades of indigestion have made the atmosphere at Simon Skojdt Assembly Hall less forgiving, especially in a season as relentlessly dreary as this one.

This season Indiana has regressed – all the way from third in the nation in early December to tied for 10th in the Big Ten. A team that beat Kansas and North Carolina could not beat Fort Wayne or Nebraska.

Yes, injuries have been substantial, season-ending for Collin Hartman in October and OG Anunoby in January. But this team was trending the wrong direction before Anunoby went down, toe-tagged by Fort Wayne and Nebraska because of its turnovers (too many), defense (not enough) and leadership (not consistent).

Unless Indiana wins the Big Ten Tournament, something Crean, Sampson, Mike Davis and Bob Knight have somehow all failed to achieve, Indiana will miss the NCAA Tournament for the second time in four seasons.

In a season where the Hoosiers were a reasonable pick to finish third or fourth in the Big Ten, they’re parked behind Minnesota.

And Northwestern.

And rebuilding Iowa and Maryland, too.

It’s no surprise why many believe it’s time for a change, for the benefit of Crean and the benefit of Indiana. This isn’t football.

Crean’s name has been mentioned in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Kansas City Star and Columbia Tribune as a prime replacement for Kim Anderson, who was fired by Missouri Sunday.

Missouri is awful. Missouri is a fixer-upper. Indiana was a fixer-upper when Crean arrived in 2008. It isn’t a fixer-upper any more, thanks to Crean.

But Indiana is also a program that should expect to play in the NCAA Tournament every season, not two of every four, and advance beyond the Sweet Sixteen more than once every nine.

With a new practice facility, renovated Assembly Hall, strong in-state recruiting base, five NCAA banners and the rare fan base with more basketball than football in its robust DNA, that is hardly an unreasonable aspiration.

A decade ago Tubby Smith faced a similar malaise while he had an even better record at Kentucky and decided it was time to move to a school with lesser expectations.

Will Crean follow that script?

The college basketball world wonders.

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