The Indiana Hoosiers are set up for a special season in 2012-13.
They were ranked No. 1 for the first six weeks.
They are led by national player of the year front-runner Cody Zeller.
He is flanked by an experienced group of talented teammates (Victor Oladipo, Christian Watford, Will Sheehey and Jordan Hulls) who prevent IU's opponents from being able to double- and triple-team Zeller on a regular basis.
Because of this unexpected loss, some might wonder whether or not the Hoosiers are for real or if they should be taken seriously as a national title contender. Or, more emphatically, does Tom Crean have the coaching chops to lead Indiana to the NCAA title?
Critics could point out the fact that Crean has only coached a No. 1 team as a D-I head coach for six weeks. They could say that he doesn't know what it's like to have the "top-team target" on your back every time that you take the court.
Detractors could also suggest that Crean can remake and restore a program, but that he can't take it all the way to a title.
Faultfinders could call attention to his postseason coaching record (Wikipedia), which only includes six trips (in 13 seasons) to the NCAA Tournament, and that he has only made one Final Four (Marquette, 2003) and one Sweet 16 appearance (Indiana, 2012).
While there is some validity in all of those statements, they certainly don't rule out Crean as a first-rate coach who can take his program all the way.
The current Hoosiers' sideline leader has worked hard to earn his reputation as one of the premier coaches in college basketball.
He knows a little about challenges and paying dues.
Crean started his coaching career as a 21-year-old assistant coach at Alma College (MI). He stayed in the role of an assistant for a dozen years at places like Michigan State, Western Kentucky, Pitt and Michigan State (again).
At the ripe young age of 33, Crean was hired as the Marquette Golden Eagles head coach.
In his nine seasons in Milwaukee, he posted a 190-96 record (Wikipedia). In the 2002-03 season, he, with Dwyane Wade, took the Golden Eagles to the national semifinal game in New Orleans.
In April of 2008, Crean was hired as the head coach at Indiana. What he originally considered a dream job turned into a nightmare.
The Washington Post's John Feinstein pointed out the monstrous challenge that Crean faced when he arrived in Bloomington:
By the time Crean coached his first game that fall, five players had either been thrown off the team or transferred, and in November 2008, Indiana was placed on three years of NCAA probation. That first team was made up of one senior, five freshmen and six walk-ons.
To say that success didn't come right away for Crean at IU is an understatement. Through his first three years his record was 28-66, with the first season coming in at 6-25.
But everything fell into place in the 2011-12 season. Finally, his perseverance paid off. The Hoosiers ended up with a 27-9 record and a trip to the Sweet 16.
Crean is an exceptional recruiter and skilled developer of talent.
Justin Albers of Insidethehall.com quotes Fred Glass, IU's Athletic Director:
If Tom didn’t have the eye for talent and the eye for what could be, Roy Williams still wouldn’t have heard of those three guys. I read quotes recently where Kelvin Sampson was quoted as saying that Jordan Hulls might be a nice NAIA player, but Tom came and immediately honed in on him and said, "we’ve got to get you to make everything happen. We’ve got to build it all around you."
And then when Victor and Sheehey came in, that class was met with kind of a "ho-hum" inside and outside Hoosier Nation. But Tom saw in those guys what could be. It really goes back to Tom and his willingness not to follow the pack, do his own scouting, make his own judgments, not make the safe choice, get guys that others might not know about, and then develop the hell out of them.
Besides signing Cody Zeller in 2011, Rivals.com rated IU's Class of 2012 as No. 5 in the nation.
Crean is a great in-game tactician.
B/R's Rollin Yeatts says that Crean is "considered a cerebral coach, making numerous in-game adjustments and loading up his kids with a vast array of offensive sets."
As you watch Indiana play, you can see Crean making changes and working every angle to give the Hoosiers the best chance to win.
Indiana still must be considered one of the top contenders for the 2013 NCAA Championship.
They have the talent. They have depth. And they have one of the best coaches in the game.