Tom Crean has Indiana primed for another outright Big Ten title

Indiana’s Tom Crean entered this season on every Hot Seat list published, then dropped two of his opening six games — first to a Wake Forest team that’s currently 14th in the ACC standings, then to a UNLV team that was so bad its coach was subsequently fired.

One of Crean’s top players’ mother was publicly critical on Facebook.

Then Duke destroyed Indiana at Cameron Indoor.

Consequently, in early December, with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge just behind them, the Hoosiers were 5-3 with two resume-killing losses and a blowout to Duke on national television — and then they lost their second-leading scorer, James Blackmon, to a season-ending injury. So things were not good, and there weren’t many signs suggesting things would be good, especially with the way Indiana was guarding, which is to say, not at all.

But, somehow, things got good.

And now Indiana has to win just one of its final two regular-season games — either Tuesday night’s contest at Iowa, or Sunday’s against Maryland at Assembly Hall — to secure its second outright Big Ten title in the past four years, and people would be wise to recognize the accomplishment with context as it relates to Indiana and the Big Ten in general.

First and foremost, it would be impressive by Indiana’s standards because the school won exactly zero outright Big Ten titles in the 15 years before Crean was hired to replace Kelvin Sampson, who was forced to resign in February 2008 due to allegations of NCAA rules violations. That’s zero. Over a 15-year span. And now Crean is just one win away from taking two outright Big Ten titles in a four-year span. So that’s what it means for Indiana. But it’s also impressive from a Big Ten perspective. Because do you know how many schools have won multiple outright Big Ten titles since Crean got the IU job in April 2008?

Zero.

Which means Crean is just one win from making Indiana the only school to win multiple outright Big Ten titles in the past eight years. In other words, Tom Crean is just one win from doing something Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, Ohio State’s Thad Matta, Michigan’s John Beilein and every other Big Ten coach has been unable to do in the past eight years.

Simply put, you have to try hard to hate on that.

Because that is undeniably good.

But the most interesting thing will still be what happens next.

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I have always believed it’s best to judge college basketball coaches by how they navigate a four-month season featuring road games and home games and injuries and suspensions and everything else than how they finish in a single-elimination tournament, but I’m aware I’m in the minority. And so it’ll be fascinating to see how Indiana fans handle things if Crean wins a second outright Big Ten title in the past four years and then, say, loses what would likely be a coin-flip game in the Round of 32 of the NCAA Tournament.

Because we’ve been through something like that before.

Indiana won the outright Big Ten title in 2013, earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, then lost to Syracuse in the Sweet 16, and, best I can tell, that’s mostly where the relationship between Indiana’s fans and Indiana’s coach — which I detailed at length in November — got wildly twisted, really complex and sometimes nasty.

Indiana had an amazing season that season.

But it ended with disappointment.

And that one loss shaped the way that entire season is mostly remembered.

From my perspective, that’s insane. But my perspective doesn’t matter because I don’t spend my days on a message board posting under the name #HoosierHarry, and I don’t call into any radio shows in Indianapolis, and I’m not emotionally invested. So I won’t be screaming about greatness or yelling about upsets no matter what happens. I’ll just let whatever happens happen, then try to place it into context for anybody who cares to read.

But here’s the truth: Winning a second outright Big Ten title in a four-year span will only be remembered fondly by many IU fans if it’s followed by a run in the NCAA Tournament that’s deemed acceptable, and, frankly, we won’t know what’s acceptable until that time comes.

So, again, what could happen Tuesday night at Iowa is awesome.

We could witness history.

Indiana could really do something rare for both Indiana and the Big Ten.

But the bottom line is that what comes after that will be what’s most interesting and lasting. Because what comes after that will further shape the fascinating relationship between Indiana’s fans and Indiana’s coach, and whether that’s fair or not is way beside the point.

Tom Crean has Indiana on the verge of something no other Big Ten school has done since 2008. (USATSI)

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