For the second time in his eight-year tenure at Indiana, Tom Crean has pulled off a title-worthy resurrection in Bloomington. His Hoosiers clinched the Big Ten regular season championship by toppling No. 16 Iowa on Tuesday night.
Crean's 2016 turnaround doesn't compare to his work turning an attrition-sieged six-win program into a Sweet Sixteen participant in four years, but it can't be ignored, either. The Bloomington coach may as well have had a target on his back when the season began.
A 16-20 combined conference record in 2014 and 2015 made "Tom Crean hot seat" a fruitful search term this fall. USA Today and ESPN both put the veteran on top of their chopping blocks, waiting for another mediocre season in the cradle of basketball civilization. Preseason polls picked the Hoosiers to finish second in their conference and ranked Indiana 15th in the nation, but the early returns on 2015-16 added fuel to the "Fire Crean" bandwagon. Indiana lost three of its first eight games, including defeats to Wake Forest (11-19 this winter) and UNLV (17-13).
Then, something changed. Indiana rallied from a Dec. 3 loss to Duke to rip off 12 straight wins. All 14 of the league wins that earned the Hoosiers a Big Ten title came without sharpshooting guard James Blackmon Jr. (15.8 points per game, 46.2 percent from three-point range) on the court due to a knee injury. Without Blackmon, Indiana suddenly became a much stingier team on the defensive end -- just the thing it needed to buckle down in league play. Crean's new version of the Hoosiers made fewer defensive mistakes while still providing the same offensive output they produced with Blackmon on the floor, or better.
Indiana stumbled after that 12-game winning streak. The team lost three of its next six games, including a nearly inexplicable loss to Penn State. Still, Crean proved his resilience once more. The Hoosiers won four in a row over their last two weeks, including a home win against No. 17 Purdue and Tuesday's title-clinching victory in Iowa City.
Crean's Hoosiers rallied to a championship despite the loss of one of its best players. Did the departure of Blackmon -- No. 1 on the team in offensive plus/minus but No. 10 on the defensive side of the ball -- just provide evidence for the theory that defense wins championships and fit supersedes talent? Has Crean been a mastermind in managing his chess pieces after one of his highest-usage players was put on the shelf?
Whatever the case, Crean's never-boring career has once again been resuscitated.