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Winning remains all that can save Tom Crean at Indiana

Tom Crean made the largely popular decision to dismiss a pair of players from the Indiana basketball program this week, but it's a move that won't matter one bit if the Hoosiers don't win big in 2015-16.

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The latest chapter of the seemingly never-ending story of off-the-court drama in Bloomington was written on Thursday when Tom Crean dismissed redshirt freshman Devin Davis and rising junior Hanner Mosquera-Perea. Davis had been cited for marijuana possession earlier in the week, and Mosquera-Perea, who was not cited for anything, had been in the room with him.

Had this been an isolated incident, both players would almost certainly still be Hoosiers. Instead, this was the final strike for both Davis, who was hit by a car driven by fellow freshman Emmitt Holt after both players had been drinking underage last November, and Mosquera-Perea, who was charged with OWI in February, 2014.

The multiple offenses gave Crean the rare opportunity to play Hoosier hero, to tell the offenders that they had proven once and for all that they didn't deserve to play basketball at Indiana University.

Not that the move was met with universal approval.

This isn't about wanting what's best for a young man. Or even instilling values. Or teaching a lesson by way of failure. It's simply a fan's way of saying you are making my school, and therefore me, look bad. It's a self-serving, sanctimonious narrative that was pulled out of the ass of a Do Things The Right Way sportswriter so many years ago -- and that same take is now regurgitated over and over again every time one of these issues arise.

"You don't deserve to play at this school! This is a privilege!"

The easiest way to deal with the death of a young man's dream is to speak in platitudes, dropping one's self in this sanctimonious utopia completely disconnected from reality. In a profession that so much prides itself on the growth of men, dismissal can often be the easy way out. Devin Davis, a kid that has been through more in the last few months than most of you or myself could ever imagine, is now cast off without a rudder. Did Davis play a role in ending up in such shape in the first place? From the police report, that seems very possible. But something seems amiss about casting a kid who suffered a traumatic brain injury a few months earlier out to sea for wanting to smoke some bud in the days after classes ended.

As with just about everything Crean has done at Indiana, the move to dismiss Davis and Mosquera-Perea has resulted in hoards of differing opinions driven mostly by passion. That's what happens at a prestigious program that isn't used to seeing transgressions like the ones committed by these two players ... or the failed drug tests by Troy Williams and Stanford Robinson ... or the underage consumption citation for Yogi Ferrell ... or the having not made it past the Sweet 16 in 13 years.

Make no mistake about it, the last item on that list is more important than all the others combined.

There are legitimately hundreds of sports adages floating around out there in the ether regarding the fleetingness of opportunity and the importance of taking advantage when a chance presents itself. Run a quick search for any of them and I'm quite sure that wherever you land will have something wholly applicable to the Crean era at Indiana.

Three years ago, Crean was on top of the college hoops world. He was the conquering hero who had revived Hoosier basketball from the lowest low that a majority of the fan base had ever experienced. He was the head coach of a team with two potential All-Americans and the perfect mix of experienced upperclassmen and talented youth. He was the man in charge of the most talented college basketball team in America, and the group most likely to cut down the nets in Atlanta five months later.

There had been problems along the way, of course.

Indiana fans had expected some hard years in the wake of the Kelvin Sampson debacle, but Crean's first three teams going a combined 28-66 and 8-36 in Big Ten play had tested the patience of even the most resolute Hoosier. There were off the court things, too. Eli Holman broke a potted plant in Crean's office after a conversation between the two about Holman's transfer went sour, Austin Rivers tweeted that Crean was "a joke" while his brother, Jeremiah, was playing for the Hoosiers, and Crean was hit with a secondary violation for having illegal contact with eventual Michigan State star Gary Harris. It was all stuff that made the Alumni Hall faithful go, "it happens."

What Indiana fans couldn't and haven't been able to shrug off is what happened at the end of the 2012-13 season: Tom Crean didn't cash in.

Despite heading up a team that included the eventual No. 2 and No. 4 selections from the 2013 NBA Draft, Crean's 2012-13 Hoosiers failed to win 30 games and dropped a 61-50 Sweet 16 game against Syracuse in which they looked totally intimidated by the bigger and more physical Orange. A 17-15 hangover season later, and suddenly the recruiting swings and misses weren't so easy to brush off. Suddenly the jokes about the the Sweet 16 shirts and cutting down the nets after a home loss sting a little bit more than they did at the time they were first conceived.

Suddenly, the off the court stuff was being used as justification for calling for the head coach's job.

Indiana's 2014-15 season was essentially a microcosm of Crean's entire time in Bloomington. The season started with some fans and writers calling for the head coach's head. Two months later, another faction of fans and media members were lambasting the others after the Hoosiers' surprisingly prolific start. Fast forward a few more weeks, and Indiana is tanking and the first group is thumping its collective chest again. Then, finally, the Hoosiers save enough face to make the NCAA Tournament, lose a close game in the first round, and leave everyone without any sort of definitive answer yet again.

But let's go back to 2013. What if Crean and IU had made it to Atlanta like they were supposed to? What if the Hoosiers hadn't felt like underachievers all season? What if they hadn't looked shaky against Temple in the Round of 32 and terrified against Syracuse four days later? What if Crean was, at worst, the guy who had gotten Indiana basketball back to the Final Four? There would be criticism, sure, but there would also be a whole lot more folks in Bloomington tossing out statistics regarding underage drinking in college and pointing to the unpunished failed drug tests at other major programs.

One way or the other, it feels like things in Bloomington are coming to a head in 2015-16. Crean got another year with the Hoosiers, and he also got the same deal from stars Yogi Ferrell and James Blackmon Jr., as well as incoming freshman stud Thomas Bryant. It's an IU team that figures to begin the season ranked somewhere in the top 20, and with the potential to go where no Hoosier team has gone since Dane Fife was wearing candy stripes.

The difference between "the guy has no control over anything" and "he's done a hell of a job considering the knuckleheads he has to work with" is razor thin -- say, a handful of regular season wins and a couple of NCAA Tournament victories. That's the line Crean will walk over the course of the next 10 months.