It's been a quiet couple of months for the IU basketball team, but after years of turbulent off the court developments IU fans will gladly accept the relative calm. What little news the program has produced this month has been positive.
Recently, the team learned that they posted a perfect APR score of 1000 for their performance in the 2009-2010 academic year. It's a clear burst of sunshine for a program that has suffered for years under the black clouds of poor APR scores during Mike Davis' tumultuous final season (826) and Kelvin Sampson's disastrous final campaign (811), suffering the consequences (scholarship reductions) along the way. It also closes an ugly chapter of IU's basketball history that Crean and athletic director Fred Glass have promised never to visit again.
The only other news to trickle out of the program in the past few days is the transfer of sophomore forward Bobby Capobianco. The departure of a member of your program is never good news, but this appears to be a mutually beneficial decision. The hard working forward from Ohio didn't appear to be on a trajectory to reach his full potential at Indiana due to increased competition for minutes and a resulting lack of playing time. A move to the right program could make Capobianco a valuable starter for a Division-I team instead of the limited role player his career seemed destined for at IU. Meanwhile, the Hoosiers got some help in alleviating an obvious scholarship crunch and will now be able to sign their highly touted 2012 recruiting class in full.
So in a matter of days IU has removed the stigma and danger that comes with a poor APR score and cleared the way for a parade of talent coming to campus. With the arrival of five-star McDonald's All-American Cody Zeller just weeks away, things are definitely looking up for Coach Tom Crean and his Hoosiers. Little by little the obstacles that have always lain in the IU coach's path since his arrival in Bloomington—a limited roster, APR induced sanctions, a lack of experience on the roster—have been cleared away. The rocky road ahead just got a little smoother.
But make no mistake; it's still going to be an uphill climb for the 45-year old head coach at Indiana.
Fans have been patient so far with Crean and his program. The never wavering, superb attendance at Assembly Hall even during the lean times of the past few years remains one of the most admirable stories in college basketball. But if you listen closely to the fan rhetoric that always surrounds this program you've been able to detect slow, subtle shifts in its most ardent fans' attitudes and expectations. Patience is wearing thin, not just in the stands, but in the coach's office as well. While Crean has proven himself a quality leader of young men, an outstanding recruiter, and a relentlessly optimistic man in the face of great adversity, fans are anxious for him to answer the ultimate question—can he win consistently at the highest level?
Indiana fans don't set their sights on 20-win seasons. They still aim for new banners to hang on the south end of Assembly Hall. Big Ten titles are nice, but a coach won't go down in IU legend until he's hung his own national championship banner. It's a tough task…and an uphill climb for any coach regardless of his caliber.
Fortunately for Crean, those expectations still remain in his future rather than his present. This coming year's team isn't being counted on to bring home the school's sixth national title or its 21st Big Ten title. Most fans even realize that a NCAA tournament berth may still be too lofty of a goal for this year's team.
If that sounds too much like the past, though, just take a quick look at the future to see the changing climate of IU basketball. Consider this: a 28-66 record over his first three seasons in Bloomington didn't even come close to putting Crean on the hot seat. A 66-28 record over his next three just might, almost assuredly if it comes with little tournament success. That's the reality of Indiana basketball. Soon 20-win seasons, which are so desperately sought right now, won't be enough by themselves. It will always be about competing for titles at Indiana.
In the coming seasons Crean will have the raw materials to do just that. With the arrival of his heralded 2012 recruiting class in just 15 months he will soon be at the helm of what could be one of the most talented IU rosters of the last 20 years. Youth will be perfectly blended with veterans who have been through the battles and have the scars to prove it. The previously valid reasons for failure will be expired. Crean will either sink or swim on his own merit.
There will come a time in the next three years when it won't be about his recruiting ability, his unsinkable attitude, or the quality of young men he molds—all admirable traits. But instead it will become more about his direct coaching ability and the results they gather. Basically, all the things that some fans love to debate now with little evidence to make a convincing argument one way or the other due to the circumstances of his time in Bloomington thus far (not enough talent, even less depth). Questions like is he really a top-tier, elite game coach capable of making the in-game adjustments to win at the highest level? Can he develop players to their full potential? Can he mold a team to be much greater than the sum of its parts?
Those questions have been hard to answer definitively during his first three seasons in Bloomington. And next year's team will be more about player development and learning to deal with slightly heightened expectations than it will be about winning a conference title. Fans will want to see progress made, but won't be foolhardy enough to expect it to be made in gigantic leaps and bounds.
That all begins to change rather quickly in 2012, though. A talented freshman class will immediately raise the stakes. In today's NCAA world highly touted freshman are expected to compete to win right away. The fact that Indiana should have some veteran holdovers to help lead them will only increase the expectations for Crean and his team. By the 2013 season IU fans will deservedly be expecting a Big Ten title hunt and to be entertained well through March again.
What's important in the here and now, though, is that this winter the current team makes enough strides to be ready to metaphorically hand the baton to next year's team in stride. Steady progress towards a 20-win season and a NCAA tournament berth need to be made, if not necessarily accomplished. When the 2012 team hits the court the task shouldn't be monumental improvement on the previous season, but just steady improvement with a notable increase in the wins column. After gaining some tournament experience in 2012 and perhaps putting together a nice run, maybe the 2013 team will be primed for a serious national title seeking campaign.
It won't be easy, but the pieces seem to be falling in place for IU's return to prominence in college basketball. After years of dealing with impossible odds and roadblocks, Crean finds himself looking at clear skies and limitations that will reside among them. How the next three years actually play out at Indiana will go a very long way in determining his fate at Indiana. Will he head into his seventh season at Indiana in 2014 with another loaded recruiting class and several NCAA tournament wins under his belt? Or will potential fail to meet expectations and 2014 will find him no longer walking the sidelines at Indiana? That's going to be the crux of Crean's story and it's yet to be written.
Crux of Crean's Story About to be Written
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