Tom Crean came to Bloomington in 2009, inheriting an Indiana team that had contended for the Big Ten title and made the NCAA Tournament in 2008, but ran afoul of NCAA recruiting rules. Crean was brought in to clean house and a housecleaning is exactly what followed. IU started over from scratch and over Crean’s first three years went 28-66. By 2012, the Hoosiers were competitive again and made the Sweet 16. The 2013 Indiana basketball edition was a breakout team, one poised to restore the program to glory. But March disappointment foreshadowed how the Crean era would eventually end.
Indiana had two big-time talents in sophomore center Cody Zeller and junior small forward Victor Oladipo. Both would be lottery picks in the coming NBA draft and Oladipo turned into a legitimate NBA star. At Indiana in 2013, Zeller averaged 17 points/8 rebounds per game. Oladipo was good for 14/6 and shot 44 percent from three-point range.
Christian Watford wasn’t regarded as highly by the pro scouts, but the 6’9” senior was every bit as productive as a college player. Watford averaged a 12/6 and hit 48 percent behind the arc. Jordan Hulls, the senior point guard was another double-digit scorer and another 45 percent-plus three-point shooter. Will Sheehey rounded out the starting lineup by averaging another 10ppg.
Expectations in basketball-crazed Bloomington were through the roof. National observers agreed. The Hoosiers were ranked #1 in the country to start the season.
Indiana went to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn for a November tournament. They knocked off Georgia—something that appears ironic in retrospect given Crean’s coaching career path. Then IU played a good Georgetown team, one that would eventually get a 2-seed in the NCAA Tournament and won in overtime.
North Carolina didn’t have a vintage team when they came to Assembly Hall in Bloomington for the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. But they were still NCAA-bound and they were still North Carolina. Indiana rang up an 83-59 blowout.
An overtime loss to NCAA-bound Butler in Indianapolis knocked the Hoosiers from the top spot in the polls, but they still entered Big Ten play with a record of 12-1 and ranked fifth nationally. Expectations were being met.
The Big Ten season opened with a win at Iowa and another at home over Penn State. Minnesota came into Bloomington ranked #8 in the country. Indiana handed the Gophers an 88-81 loss.
Then Wisconsin came to town on a Tuesday night, the time slot when ESPN shows a Big Ten game to the national audience. The Badgers had been the Hoosiers’ kryptonite for several years and that continued tonight. Indiana did not play well and lost 64-59.
IU took advantage of a soft schedule sequence and beat Northwestern and Penn State to get back on track. Then the Hoosiers nipped Tom Izzo’s Michigan State 75-70 for their first big victory in conference play. A blowout of lowly Purdue pushed Indiana’s league record to 7-1 and set up a national showcase game.
Michigan was also 7-1 in the league. They were coming to Assembly Hall. ESPN’s basketball Gameday was in town and the matchup would be in prime-time. There was also a big human interest angle. Crean’s wife Joani has the maiden name of Harbaugh. As in John and Jim Harbaugh, coaches of the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers in the NFL. And whose teams were going to meet the following day in the Super Bowl. Crean was going to coach this big game and then grab a red-eye flight to New Orleans with his wife for the Super Bowl.
First things first. Indiana shot 52 percent from the floor against Michigan. Wolverine guard Trey Burke, headed for National Player of the Year honors got 25 points, but it took 9-for-24 shooting to get his numbers. Zeller and Watford combined for 33 points/22 rebounds. Oladipo added 15 more. The Hoosiers won 81-73.
Crean then watched the Ravens edge the 49ers and flew back home where his team had a tough date at NCAA-bound Illinois. They lost that one 74-72. But Indiana responded with a visit to Ohio State, a solid team that was in contention for the conference title. Oladipo, Zeller and Watford combined for 70 points in an impressive 81-68 win.
The schedule briefly softened and Indiana capitalized with wins over Nebraska and Purdue. Another Tuesday night ESPN battle saw the Hoosiers go to East Lansing, where the Spartans were also giving chase for the Big Ten crown in what was a four-team race. Indiana won 72-68 behind a 19/9 performance from Oladipo.
A week off set up another Tuesday night game, this one at Minnesota. The Gophers hadn’t met the high expectations of January when they were in the Top 10, but they were still going to make the NCAA Tournament. Indiana lost this one 77-73.
We were headed into the homestretch of the Big Ten race. Indiana was 12-3. Michigan State was 11-4. Michigan and Ohio State each had five conference losses. The Hoosiers had not won so much as a piece of the Big Ten crown since a four-way tie in 2002. They had not taken the league outright since Bob Knight’s last great team in 1993. In a region of the country where the regular season conference championship is highly valued, this had to change and the moment was at hand.
Indiana beat Iowa 73-60 and then watched Michigan State fall at Michigan. At least a tie for first was clinched going into the final week of the season. Ohio State arrived in Bloomington for a Tuesday night battle.
The chance to clinch outright on Senior Night was lost when the Hoosiers fell 67-58. Michigan and Michigan State also won. We were going to the final weekend with Indiana one game ahead of all three challengers…and playing in Ann Arbor.
In a showdown game, Indiana again forced Burke into a rough shooting performance, 7-for-20. Zeller had a huge game, 25 points and 10 rebounds. Oladipo’s line was 14/13 as the Hoosiers dominated the boards. Rebounding and defense was the key to a 72-71 escape that secured the outright Big Ten championship.
At the conference tournament in Chicago, IU beat Illinois in the quarterfinals, but the semis saw another loss to Wisconsin. Ohio State ended up winning the tournament. But Indiana still had a #1 seed for the NCAA Tournament in hand and they were slotted in the East Regional.
IU’s opening weekend pod of four teams was sent to Dayton. They played James Madison in the Round of 64 and the result was what you would expect. The Hoosiers were up 43-22 by halftime, held JMU to 42 percent shooting and cruised home 83-62.
The Round of 32 against Temple was where problems started to appear. The Owls’ Khalif Wyatt went off for 31 points. Indiana trailed by three at the half. The Hoosiers were shutting down Scootie Randall, Wyatt’s season-long running mate. That defense ended up being the difference. Indiana pulled out a 58-52 win.
It was on to Washington D.C. for the regionals. Syracuse, the team Indiana had beaten for their last national championship back in 1987 was the opponent. In that ’87 title game, IU’s Steve Alford had lit it up from three-point range. If only Indiana would have had Alford on this night.
Syracuse played their patented 2-3 zone. Indiana looked tentative, unsure of themselves, even though a team with all their three-point shooters was ideally suited to break open the zone. They shot 3-for-15 from behind the arc. This game was, to be kind, a disaster. Oladipo was the only Hoosier to play well, getting 16 points. They trailed 34-22 by halftime and lost 61-50.
It was a bitterly disappointing ending to a season of such great promise. The loss, and the way it went down, cost Crean a lot of goodwill with the fan base. He never really regained it. Indiana slipped to mediocrity the following two years. They bounced back with another Big Ten title run in 2016 and another Sweet 16 trip, but that ’16 team was never seen as a national contender. Crean was fired following the 2017 season.
Crean is now trying to rebuild his career in Georgia. At this writing, it’s not going well, with a 41-49 record after three years. Indiana’s hire of Archie Marshall as the successor was a disaster and they are, at present, seeking a new head coach. Neither the coach nor the program has been the same since 2013.