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Crean counts small victories in massive IU rebuilding project

Winning comes with style points. Win a lot, we question if you're winning the right way. Are you winning big? Do your wins look good? Why doesn't that guy play more? He'd help you win.

Losing, it turns out, is not so different. Losing has its own style agenda. Tom Crean is learning that at Indiana. It's not an intellectual breakthrough for Crean. It's more of a survival technique.

"We were a lot more competitive last night,'' the Hoosiers' coach said Wednesday. "We made a ton fewer mistakes. The energy was really good.''

On Tuesday night, No. 11 Michigan State came to Assembly Hall and cruised to a 72-58 win. Indiana has lost seven in row, is 9-16 overall and 3-10 in the Big Ten. The Hoosiers likely won't be favored in any of their final five games.

And yet ...

"You can't measure your program by victories, but by improvement,'' Crean said. "We did a lot of good things.''

Indiana had six more rebounds than the Spartans, who generally rebound as if life depends on it. The Hoosiers had 17 offensive rebounds. That's an effort stat, a want-to indicator. When your team is all but brand new, it's what you look for. You have to start somewhere.

As Crean said, "We weren't dealing with normalcy here.''

It's not even rebuilding. Rebuilding implies a foundation. A house leveled in a tornado still has a basement. Indiana had no basement. Because he was hired April 1 two years ago, Crean barely had enough time to assemble enough bodies to field a team. The freshmen this year represent his first legitimate class.

Crean has termed the post-Kelvin Sampson mess "an athletic disaster'' and "a greater challenge than I'd ever imagined.'' Hoosiers athletic director Fred Glass called it "the equivalent of a death penalty in basketball.''

When Crean arrived in 2008, he inherited a program infected by drugs and unbothered by academic achievement. "Nineteen Fs,'' he said. "Drug counselors. If we'd taken short cuts on the drug and academic issues, we'd be sitting here just fine right now, believe me.''

As it was, Crean purged the program of anyone tainted. When he finished, he had one returning scholarship player. "Our first semester here, the basketball program had its lowest grade-point average in school history,'' said Crean. Last term, 10 players had GPAs of 3.0 or better.

This is good. It allows you to look yourself in the mirror and like what you see. It's no help when you start two freshmen and rely on four others. (Three, actually, since the best freshman, guard Maurice Creek, suffered a fracture in his left knee after 11 games.)

Of 347 Division I teams, Indiana is the 337th most experienced. Before Tuesday night, Indiana's freshmen had scored 821 points. That was 249 more than Iowa, Young Team Number Two in the country. Crean's building the basement with a bunch of apprentices.

"It's sort of a laboratory situation,'' is how he described it. It's like dealing with your own kids, Crean said. His are 14 and 10. "You can't get frustrated and angry all the time, when they're not getting what you're teaching. It doesn't mean they don't want to get it. They can't grasp it.''

Take Tuesday night. In practice, Crean had emphasized defense, to the extent he neglected other, finer points he assumed his players would remember to do. The Hoosiers defended well against Michigan State ... and forgot to block out after Spartans' free-throw tries. It cost them three baskets. Six points, in a game they kept to within 10 or 12 most of the night.

"When you get away from something with a young team, it's like they've never done it before,'' Crean said.

And yet ...

"We guarded the pick and roll as well as we ever have,'' said Crean.

You have to start somewhere.

He's learning, so are his players. Crean has leaned on friends in the coaching business: Kentucky coach John Calipari. Green Bay Packers' coach Mike McCarthy, whom Crean befriended while coaching at Marquette. His father-in-law, Jack Harbaugh, his brothers-in-law Jim, the Stanford football coach, and John, coach of the Baltimore Ravens. People who know what it's like to see hope in a loss.

Someone once told Crean that "the long-term memory for the average human is three days. I can't be the average human in this situation. I keep reminding myself of that.''

He has encountered a mostly willing, forgiving fan base in Indiana, partly because they understand the depths of what he inherited and partly because, well, it's Indiana, Midwestern, Middle America, friendly. Hoosiers fans see IU basketball as an heirloom, a vital stitch in the cultural fabric. They also see Crean as a mid-western guy, with all the assumed virtues that implies: Honest, earnest, willing to toil. A right-way sort, who gets what it means to coach basketball in Bloomington.

They're still going to games, too. The Hoosiers still average more than 14,000 at Assembly Hall.

Crean has courted history as he hopes to make some of his own. Former players are frequent visitors at games and practices. Crean recites their names -- "Steve Green, Brian Evans, Ted Kitchel, Pat Graham ...'' -- then apologizes for leaving anyone out.

Bob Hamill, the longtime Bloomington sports writer and among Bob Knight's best friends, has returned to the IU flock, after an extended absence since The General's dismissal. Crean even invited AngeloPizzo to practice. Pizzo wrote the script for the movie Hoosiers.

When Crean recruits now, he tells prospects not to expect to "come in, get stats, lead the program back and go to the NBA. I'm not opposed to one-and-done. I'm opposed to guys who come in here and want to do it by themselves. That's not going to happen. We want someone with a strong work ethic, who loves the game and has a high tolerance for adversity while they're growing. In return, he gets an opportunity of restoring a tradition that's as good as any in college basketball.''

Meanwhile, Crean walks the thin line between hope and confidence. "It's a real psychology,'' he said. "You've got to be careful what you say. You don't want to talk about moral victories. They're not moral victories. They're small victories.''

Moral or small, it all adds up to the same thing. Baby steps, on the long road back. Indiana is 9-16. That's not so bad when compared to last year's 6-25.

"We had 28 free throw attempts last night,'' Crean said. "That's great. That's what we have to do. We can build on that.''

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