BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Tom Crean was looking tanned, relaxed and happy.
As he stood on the court of Assembly Hall a few hours before Indiana's game against UMass-Lowell on Wednesday, Crean's pose was much different than the one he struck exactly one year ago. Back then, Crean's Hoosiers were about to embark on a disastrous trip to Hawaii, where they lost to UNLV and Wake Forest in the Maui Invitational. One week later, they were throttled by 20 points at Duke. Those setbacks inflamed the scuttlebut that Crean might be on the verge of losing his job.
This year? Not so much. Indiana once again traveled to Hawaii in November, only this time they scored a huge 103–99 overtime win over then-No. 3 Kansas. Crean didn't lounge around the pool in Honolulu, but he did go running every day and wrote his gameplan outside on Friday morning. He also went running during a one-day stopover in Phoenix on the way home. Hence, the tan.
As for the happy, Crean's team is teeming with talent and playing a highly entertaining brand of basketball. Instead of speculating about whether Crean can survive, people are wondering whether his team can win its third Big Ten title in five years and get to the Final Four. Crean, however, insists he is not awash in relief, just as he insisted last year that he was not wallowing in despair.
"If I wasn't going to let the negativity and adversity get in the way, then I'm certainly not going to let accolades or praise stop me from doing what I need to do, because it could change in two weeks," he said. "I never got caught up in all that. I really didn't. I've learned so much being here about what you can control, what you can't control, what matters, what doesn't matter. And the bottom line is the connection with your team has constantly got to be forming."
Crean admits that in the past he has listened too much to external noise. "I've been there before, absolutely," he said. "We all have." The moment where he pivoted can be pinpointed precisely. It came on Nov. 2, 2014, when he posted on his Twitter feed a link to an update on the health of 6' 7" freshman forward Devin Davis, who had suffered a severe head injury on Halloween night when a teammate accidentally struck him as Davis was walking in front of his car. That accident set off a chain of events that culminated in three players being dismissed from the program, including Davis, who is now playing at Houston. Meanwhile, the news was not much better on the court, where the Hoosiers, who had failed to make the NCAA tournament the season before, would go on to finish seventh in the Big Ten and lose in the first round of the NCAA tournament to Wichita State.
Many coaches in those circumstances expend a great deal of energy trying to fight public battles that can never be won. Crean, however, decided to turn inward—to his family, his faith, and most of all, his team. As it turns out, that link about Davis was the last thing he ever posted on Twitter. Though many of Indiana's fans deserted Crean in his darkest hours, his players never did. As the 2014–15 season drew to a close, the father of point guard Yogi Ferrell suggested that his son's decision whether to enter the NBA draft would hinge on Crean's return to Bloomington. Truth be told, Ferrell wasn't that close to leaving, and Crean was never close to being fired, but the statement spoke volumes about the way his players and their families felt.
Despite the shaky start last year, Indiana improved dramatically in the ensuing months. The Hoosiers ended up winning the Big Ten regular season title by two games and reached the Sweet 16 for the third time in five years with a second-round win over Kentucky. In retrospect, this should not have been surprising, since few coaches can match Crean's record when it comes to player improvement. That stretches back to previous stop at Marquette, when he brought in a raw, lightly regarded recruit named Dwyane Wade and helped transform him into an NBA Hall of Famer. Crean also polished a hidden gem in Jerel McNeal, who had just four scholarship offers but left Marquette as the school's alltime leading scorer, and helped 6' 10" forward Steve Novak evolve from a slow, thin shooting specialist to a multi-dimensional player now enjoying in his 11th NBA season.
That pattern has continued at Indiana, not just with rough diamonds like Victor Oladipo but also McDonald's All-Americans like Cody Zeller. Zeller's offensive improvement prompted Indiana's sophomore center Thomas Bryant, a 6' 10" McDonald's All-American from Rochester, N.Y., to turn down Syracuse and Kentucky for the chance to come to Indiana as well. Another former McDonald's All-American, 6' 4" junior guard James Blackmon, had his second ACL surgery nearly a year ago, yet he says he has returned this season stronger and more athletic than he was before he got hurt. That is a testament to the strength, conditioning, medical and rehab staff that Crean has assembled.
Many coaches pride themselves on being able to evaluate talent. Crean's specialty is spying untapped potential. Take OG Anunoby, Indiana's 6' 8" sophomore forward from Jefferson, Missouri. Crean first saw Anunoby play at an AAU tournament in Georgia the summer before his junior year of high school. Anunoby wasn't even listed in the program. Crean was intrigued by the kid's athleticism, but he really got interested when he studied video of Anunoby playing for his high school team. "I said that's a guy we can make a lot better, because he could shoot," Crean said. "It was a no-brainer."
Anunoby was recruited by a few other power conference schools (Iowa, Georgia, Ole Miss), but none at Indiana's level. His skill set has expanded dramatically since the end of last season. Through Indiana's first three games, Anunoby is averaging 12.7 points and shooting 58.3%, and many NBA draft experts project that he will be a first-round pick in June. In the meantime, he is a potential All-Big Ten candidate and a major reason why the Hoosiers enter Thanksgiving week with such high hopes.
Crean loves the minutiae of developing his players, whether it's their bodies, their skills or their minds. Many head coaches delegate individual workouts to assistants, but the day before I spoke with Crean, he had been through two individual workouts on top of the full-team practice. "There's nothing I love more," he said. "The games, the strategy, the in-game adjustments—that stuff's awesome. But I just love being on the court and watching them get better. We're training them as basketball players and teaching them to be cerebral, because ultimately that's what's going to work at the next level."
That dedication is helping Crean establish a culture of continuity at Indiana. There are only a small handful of programs who can recruit one-and-dones fast enough to be able to replace departed lottery picks. Crean's program is falling into a pattern of equally successful schools like Michigan State, Syracuse and Villanova, which sign occasional McDonald's All-Americans and then surround them with second-tier recruits who stay, improve and learn how to win. When Crean took over at Indiana eight years ago, the program was in dire straits, so it has taken him a while get to this place. But here he is.
And here he'll stay. Crean is 50 years old now. His perspective has been hard-won, yet he has never been more comfortable in his skin or confident in his ability. Let the outside world ponder the big picture on social media. He'd rather busy himself in the details of the job. "It's not overconfidence or arrogance. It's discernment," he says. "You have to discern what really matters. It doesn't matter if it's negativity or adversity or praise. In this job, you can't let anything allow you to lose your focus. Whatever happens, you've got keep getting better."
We have to be careful about drawing too many hard conclusions after just a week-and-a-half of games, but if you're going to lock in on something, you should take note of which teams scored quality true road wins. Here are my top five road warriors so far:
1. Villanova 79, Purdue 76. Heck of an escape for the reigning champs, who proved once more that a team that has great perimeter players but is questionable inside will usually have the advantage over a team with quality bigs but suspect guard play.
2. Saint Mary's 61, Dayton 57. This had to be a huge confidence booster for the Gaels, who return nearly every point and rebound from last season. Junior center Jock Landale, who opened the season by going for 33 points and 9 rebounds in a win over Nevada, had 15 points and 14 rebounds in the win. Remember that name.
3. Seton Hall 91, Iowa 83. The Pirates are a veteran team, but the star of this one was freshman guard Myles Powell, who poured in 26 points off the bench.
4. Yale 98, Washington 90. Yale came in without its leading scorer and faced a Power 5 team that could have the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft in freshman guard Markelle Fultz. Well, Fultz got his 30 points, but the Bulldogs got the win, thanks to a 42–29 rebound advantage that yielded 15 more field-goal attempts than the Huskies.
5. USC 65, Texas A&M 63. We are in year four of the Andy Enfield experiment in USC, and the Trojans are ascending right on schedule. I love the offensive improvement of 6' 11" sophomore forward Chimezie Metu, who is averaging 14 points through his first three games after scoring just 6.4 last season.
Ryan M. Kelly/AP
Other Hoop Thoughts
• The big news over the weekend was Virginia's dismissal of Austin Nichols, a 6' 9" junior forward who transferred from Memphis. Nichols was a heralded recruit out of Tennessee, and while he put in a couple of promising seasons at Memphis, he departed during the summer of 2015. Virginia coach Tony Bennett had already suspended Nichols from the season opener for violating team rules. Whatever happened to warrant this latest move, it's obvious that Nichols did not learn the necessary lessons. From a basketball standpoint, this is a tough blow for Virginia, which was already going to have a difficult time scoring in the frontcourt. His presence in the lineup was a major reason why the Cavaliers earned a No. 8 preseason ranking. His size and skill will not be easily replaced.
• It wasn't shocking to see Wisconsin lose at Creighton—the Bluejays are a top-25 team for a reason—but I think it's safe to say the Badgers will not try to replicate the way they played that night. Wisconsin attempted a whopping 39 three pointers to just five free throws. That's exactly what Creighton tried to engineer by packing in its defense. Wisconsin can make some threes, but its offense should never be that much out of whack. I'm guessing that won't happen again this season.
• Speaking of Creighton, keep your eye on Kyri Thomas, the Blujays' 6' 3' sophomore guard. He has a lot of game and is just filling out his 205-pound frame. Thomas had 18 points in the win over the Badgers.
• Syracuse is off to a solid 3–0 start (albeit against weak competition at home), but it kind of bums me out to see 6' 9" senior center DaJuan Coleman rendered so ineffective. He came to 'Cuse with a lot of notoriety but has missed a ton of time during an injury-riddled career. Coleman has started all three games but he only averages 14 minutes on the floor.
• There is obviously more than just one thing wrong with UConn, which lost its first two games at home to Wagner and Northeastern and was fortunate to beat Loyola Marymount on the road. But I'll start with this: The backbone of this program has been production and leadership in the backcourt, and that is glaringly absent right now. Forget about Kemba Walker or Shabazz Napier. There's no one on this team who is even as good as Sterling Gibbs, and he was a mild disappointment last year. Kevin Ollie needs his freshmen guards, Alterique Gilbert and Christian Vital, to grow up really fast.
• Dear Georgetown and Maryland: Please play every year. Signed, Humanity.
• Even after Malik Monk's 7-for-11 performance from behind the arc in the win over Michigan State, there is reason to be concerned about Kentucky's three-point shooting. However, you gotta like the way the Wildcats' guards are shooting free throws. That includes Isaiah Briscoe, who made just 46.0% from the stripe as a freshman but is 17 for 22 so far this season.
• You know what I love best about Iowa State point guard Monte Morris's triple-double (17 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists) against The Citadel on Sunday? He had zero turnovers. That's a solid night's work.
• You all know I'm a big Dick Vitale fan, but I'm with Sporting News writer Mike DeCourcy and others who disagree with his idea for allowing six fouls in college hoops. I understand the desire to see the "stars" play more minutes, but it would add a good 20 to 30 minutes to the games. I mean, the last thing this game needs is more fouls.
• I love rebounding guards.
• Got a chance to see Ohio State in person last week when I called their home win over Providence for Big Ten Network. Sophomore point guard JaQuan Lyle, who was a non-factor in the first two games, broke out for a 21-point, eight-rebound, seven-assist performance. Lyle has had really good games in the past, but he has not shown consistency because he tends to let his shooting affect how he plays. For Lyle to reach that next level of maturity, he needs to learn to have an impact on a game even when he is not scoring. It's easier said than done, but if he learns how to do that, then that will be a game changer for the Buckeyes.
• As for Providence, Ed Cooley's Friars are in rebuilding mode following the departures of Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil, but Rodney Bullock (27 points, eight rebounds, two blocks vs. Ohio State) has shown that he can be a featured performer on an NCAA tournament-level team. I was impressed with junior point guard Kyron Cartwright, who could potentially lead the Big East in assists this season, although he isn't much of a scorer himself.
• I am so excited the Final Four is going back to New Orleans in 2022. We may have to bring The Radiators out of mothballs for that one!
• With Washington struggling out of the gate, the chatter around Lorenzo Romar's job security is one again starting up. Just keep in mind that Romar signed one of the top recruits in the country, Michael Porter, Jr., next season, mostly (O.K., solely) because Romar hired Porter's father as his assistant. As anyone who has seen Porter play can attest, this kid is special—really, really special. If Washington runs Romar out of town, there is a good chance Porter will not come to Washington. Head coaches in that position usually do not get fired.
• No, I'm not referring to any specific situation, but whenever I hear that a player is being suspended because he "violated team rules," I automatically assume he tested positive for marijuana.
• I'm not all that worried yet about UCLA's defense, because last I checked, as long as you have more points on the scoreboard than the other guys, that counts as a win. And these dudes can really score.
• We all knew the freshmean class was good, but I had no idea it was this good. That is really going to add a lot of excitement to the season.
• For example, Arizona's Lauri Markkanen, a 7-foot forward from Finland. He's averaging 20.3 points, he has already made five three pointers, and he is 18 for 19 from the foul line. Check him out. You'll thank me later.
• Or Charlie Moore, the 6-foot freshman guard at Cal. He scored 38 points in Wednesday's overtime win over UC Irvine, helping the Bears to a win even though Cal was down three starters because of injuries. That broke a school freshman single-game scoring record set by Shareef Abdur-Rahim.
• I'd really like to see the rules that govern hanging on the rim be loosened up. I'm all for prohibiting taunting, but I think players should have all the latitude in the world to hang on as long as they need to ensure a safe landing. Unless they're blatantly doing pull-ups or slapping the backboard, I say let it slide.
• It's a bad sign for Mike Anderson when an opposing coach—in this case, Southern Illinois's Barry Hinson—has to chastise the Arkansas fans for not showing up to support the team. Reminds me of Al McGuire's line that when he walked into the arena, the first thing he would do is check the top few rows. If they had people in them, he felt safe. If not, he knew he was in trouble.
• Finally, I want to wish a mazel tov to my friend and CBS colleague Gary Parrish, who announced via Facebook that he and his wife have just had their third child. As you may recall, Gary wrote searingly last year of the horrible ordeal he and his wife went through in having to deliver a stillborn child. Gary kept her pregnancy under wraps this time, but even though their son, Louis, was born eight weeks premature, Gary reports he is progressing nicely. Happy for you, Gary!
This Week's AP Ballot
* (Last week's rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Villanova (3)
2. Kentucky (4)
3. Indiana (5)
4. Kansas (6)
5. Duke (1)
6. North Carolina (9)
7. Louisville (8)
8. Virginia (10)
9. Arizona (11)
10. Gonzaga (13)
11. Xavier (14)
12. Purdue (15)
13. Creighton (20)
14. Saint Mary's (16)
15. Oregon (2)
16. Wisconsin (7)
17. UCLA (18)
18. West Virginia (19)
19. Florida State (21)
20. Syracuse (22)
21. Baylor (NR)
22. Rhode Island (23)
23. Cincinnati (24)
24. Iowa State (NR)
25. Seton Hall (NR)
Dropped out: Michigan State (12), Butler (17), Maryland (25)
It's always fun when you have a legitimate choice to make at No. 1. Yes, Duke lost, but the Blue Devils are still playing without their three stud freshmen, and Kansas still needed a last-second bucket by Frank Mason to beat them. Duke also looked really strong in beating a pretty good Rhode Island team by 10 points on Sunday in Connecticut. So I was very tempted to leave the Blue Devils at No. 1.
In the end, I thought it was better to fall back to the position of evaluating teams on who they are right now, as opposed to who I think they will be once they are healthy. It's just too slippery a slope. For example, Oregon lost at Baylor without Dillon Brooks, but in that case the game wasn't close. How good will they be once Brooks comes back? Apparently we are going to find out this week at the Maui Inviational. In the meantime, I had to drop Oregon down 13 spots.
The biggest loser this week was Michigan State. Not only did the Spartans get embarrassed by Kentucky in Madison Square Garden, they were taken down to the wire at home by Florida Gulf Coast on Sunday night before winning by one—and that was aided by a controversial ending regarding the game clock. Michigan State has a chance to get some things right at the Battle 4 Atlantis this week, but it's apparent the Spartans' problems in the wake of those frontcourt injuries are bigger than most of us thought.