Indiana coach Tom Crean entered the 2015-16 season on the hot seat.
When he exits it, he’ll be able to point to a Big Ten regular-season title and at least a trip to the Sweet 16.
The season’s not over yet, though. Saturday’s result made sure of that.
In a battle of two of college basketball’s traditional powerhouses, the fifth-seeded Hoosiers defeated No. 4 seed Kentucky 73-67 to move into a Sweet 16 matchup against either No. 9 Providence or No. 1 North Carolina.
And what a game it was.
Given the rivalry atmosphere and the talent of the teams on the floor, it felt more like a game to clinch a trip to the Final Four than one to reach the third round. The intensity was that high throughout, with legitimate game pressure on both sides throughout every minute.
“(Kentucky coach) John (Calipari) was right, this is one that should have been played on another weekend,” Crean said on CBS. “They’re a great team, we responded, we know we beat an outstanding team.”
The evenness of this game for the first three-quarters of it cannot be overstated. With eight minutes remaining, the game was 50-50 and both teams had combined to shoot 19-of-45 from the field. But then the Hoosiers hit overdrive. They went on a 12-2 run to extend the lead to 10 with four minutes to go and held on from there.
The point guard matchup didn’t disappoint, either. Tyler Ulis was Kentucky’s only consistent source of offense, scoring 27 points and dishing out three assists. On the other side, Yogi Ferrell nearly equaled him. The IU senior guard scored 18 while grabbing five rebounds, dishing out four assists and only losing one turnover.
By largely matching Ulis, Ferrell allowed his team’s better overall depth to shine.
Thomas Bryant had 19. Troy Williams had 13. O.G. Anunoby only had seven, but he also played terrific defense on three different positions. These guys really needed to come through, too, as the Hoosiers lost both Juwan Morgan and Robert Johnson to injuries.
“I think the biggest thing is we couldn’t get caught up in, you know, a Tyler Ulis/Yogi Ferrell match-up, all right?” Crean said after the game. “There are so many guys on their team and we have guys, too, right? The best thing for us is the versatility of our team and the way they can guard multiple players, multiple positions.”
Speaking of Crean, has there been a coach at a blue blood that has ever turned around his situation quite like this one? Things seemed fairly dire at the start of the season, losing two of three in Maui and falling badly to Duke. Heck, it seemed uncertain as to whether or not he would make it through this date as the coach by the time December rolled around.
Now, even the most ardent Hoosier supporters can’t complain about the results of this 2015-16 team. Indiana is going to the Sweet 16, and may have a longer run yet to come.
Crean’s certainly got a fan in his opposing coach tonight, too.
“I think Tom deserves Coach of the Year,” Calipari said after the game. “I know he was Coach of the Year in the Big Ten, but what he’s done with this team, you know, again, when (James) Blackmon got hurt they thought they were finished. The way they played earlier in the year where they were still trying to figure stuff out where Thomas Bryant wasn’t playing the way he was right now, all of the sudden they’re done! You got all the crazies going nuts! Now all of the sudden, they’re in the Sweet 16 and they’re playing as well as anybody.”
Indiana’s moving on, the team is playing as well as anyone in America, and Crean has moved himself off the hot seat.
That’s a pretty successful year, so far.