"It's Indiana," Hoosiers coach Tom Crean proudly reminded the media at his introductory press conference over five years ago. "What I feel is the pinnacle, the absolute pinnacle, of all of college basketball."
The sentiment, the aura rang true. Crean was now the head coach of one of the most historically successful basketball programs in the nation.
But this wasn't your grandfather's Hoosiers.
The tradition of Indiana basketball never left. But the current product was a far cry from the program it used to be. Indiana was no longer a mainstay as one of the nation's elites.
Nearly three decades of prosperity under Bob Knight—highlighted by three National Championships, five Final Four appearances and 11 Big Ten titles—was replaced by a decade of mediocrity after his dismissal in 2000.
A national championship appearance was sprinkled in with many of Knight's recruits in April 2002, but that success ultimately proved to be an aberration, rather than a sign of things to come for six seasons under Mike Davis.
The short-tenured Kelvin Sampson sealed the Hoosiers’ fate as a diminished program, summoning NCAA sanctions that crippled the team for three years after his resignation.
The program Tom Crean inherited in 2008 was damaged. But not beyond repair.
It may have appeared so during Crean's first three seasons—seasons that saw a combined 28 wins compared to 66 losses—but consecutive Sweet 16 appearances and a Big Ten championship later, and Indiana has been revived.
The electricity has returned to Assembly Hall. Indiana is once again an attractable destination for the nation's top recruits. It took time. It took patience. But under Crean's guidance, the Hoosiers have resurfaced as a contender.
Surely that won't be enough to satisfy Indiana's rabid fanbase, though. Returning the program to the standard that was prevalent under Knight, whether fair to Tom Crean or not, will be demanded.
But is Indiana basketball capable of reaching the heights it was propelled to under Knight with Crean at the helm?
Nobody is asking Crean to be Coach Knight. Personality-wise, they may be polar opposites. Crean isn't the hot-headed dictator Knight was, nor was Knight the spirited program salesman that exemplifies Crean.
More importantly, nobody in their right mind should expect Crean to match Knight's longevity. Crean, in all likelihood, will never coach the Hoosiers for 29 years or earn the program 662 wins.
If matching Knight's success means challenging or even sniffing his records and accumulated accomplishments, Crean doesn't stand a chance. But matching the caliber of any given team Knight coached, save the undefeated 1976 squad, and doing so consistently is the next step for Crean and the program.
Indiana contending year in and year out for Big Ten titles and national championships is the standard Knight set. And that's what's expected of the Hoosiers once again and, in turn, what's expected of Tom Crean.
Tom Crean as the recruiter, the program promoter is proving capable of much. Landing 5-star prospect Cody Zeller two years ago may have been the turning point in Indiana's emergence. Top-five caliber recruiting classes in 2012 and 2013 should cement the turnaround.
Talent will no longer be an issue. There will be an abundance of it in Bloomington. And less top recruits from the talent-rich state of Indiana should bolt for the Ohio States of the world like Greg Oden and Deshaun Thomas did.
Crean's teams could be every bit as talented as Knight’s. But talent alone won't raise banner six. It's up to Crean to maximize the potential of the talent he's brought in, to put that talent in position to be not only good, but great.
Crean had national championship-caliber talent in 2012. Two Naismith Award nominees in Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller helped make that argument. Despite claiming the program’s first outright Big Ten regular season title since the 1992-93 season, the Hoosiers never played to their potential.
Indiana could have been a dominant team last season. Instead, Hoosier fans were left with brief spells of brilliance on a roller coaster ride campaign that proved just good enough for a one seed but too inconsistent for a legitimate championship push.
In a season stricken with parity among national powerhouses and mid-majors alike, Indiana was one of the few teams talented enough to surface as the clear-cut best team in the country. But they never did. And the onus has to fall on Tom Crean.
Critics complained Crean subbed too much, played an ineffective 2-3 zone too often, and was outcoached by the likes of Brad Stevens, Bo Ryan (twice), and Jim Boeheim.
The Hoosiers’ up-tempo transition offense accounted for the fifth most points per game in the entire country (78.6), but their 13.0 turnovers per contest was third worst in the Big Ten. It's a prime example of the discrepancy that prevented Indiana from being great a season ago. And once again, the blame has to fall on the head coach.
Tom Crean has brought Indiana back to national prominence. But just being relevant in the big picture isn’t good enough in the Hoosier state. Being the “pinnacle” of the college basketball landscape, as Crean so eloquently put it in 2008, is the aim.
The Hoosiers haven’t arrived to that caliber of status yet. Crean has certainly loaded them with the talent to do so.
But until he proves that he can match his basketball IQ, his ability to mold a team to be more than the sum of its parts, with his ability to sell the program, he’ll never match the success Bob Knight had at Indiana.
Not for one season. Not consistently. Not ever.
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