Column: Crean, Hoosiers earning fans back

Against all odds, Tom Crean has Indiana atop the Big Ten in late January. On Thursday night, the Hoosiers showed they may be there to stay.

Everybody has their own opinion about Tom Crean, and that's fine. I won't try to change your mind because, chances are, you have reasons for your opinion. Your opinion is probably not wrong.

This program was at a low point in November, and Crean, as the caretaker of said program, had to be held responsible for that, to a certain point. I get that. The off-court incidents, brought to a head by the car accident involving Devin Davis on Nov. 1, left a black eye on a proud university.

But Crean took a horrible situation and has handled it in the best way possible. He didn't run from the mistakes. He sat and answered for them, then turned his attention to his players, who were hurting in every way as their teammate laid in a hospital bed with a traumatic brain injury.

Crean, previously a frequent poster on Twitter, decided to get off social media and shut out all the outside noise. All the while, he worked to get his team refocused on the things it can control.

Less than three short months later, Crean has Indiana sitting atop the Big Ten standings after an impressive 89-70 win over No. 13 Maryland on Thursday night. The Hoosiers have faced one of the conference's toughest schedules through six games, and they've emerged with a 5-1 record, against all odds. They're back in the Top 25. Assembly Hall is rocking again.

While the outside world wondered how in the world Indiana would play without a true big man, Crean devised a style that fit this current team's strengths. He's starting the 6-foot-6 Collin Hartman at center, and the Hoosiers are thriving.

Hartman is a good enough post defender to contain most big men, and he's forcing opposing coaches to play smaller with his play on the offensive end. Against Maryland, Hartman scored seven points in the first two minutes of the game, and Mark Turgeon had no choice but to change the matchup.

Hartman's ability to knock down the 3 spreads the floor even more, thus opening more driving lines for Yogi Ferrell, James Blackmon Jr., Robert Johnson and others.

"Is it Hartman? No. 30?," Turgeon asked. "Yeah, he hits three 3s in the first half. That kind of got them going. I know he's a good shooter, but he hasn't been that aggressive at times."

Chances are, he'll know Hartman's name by the time the Hoosiers travel to College Park.

Indiana doesn't have much of a post offense, but it doesn't matter. The Hoosiers shot 60 percent, made 15-of-22 3-pointers and scored 89 points against the Big Ten's best defense on Thursday night.

IU's version of a post game, Crean says, is when Hartman drives to the rim, another area in which he was very effective against the Terps. When Hartman knocks down 3s, the bigger defender has to close out on him harder, allowing him to drive to either score or pass to an open teammate.

"When Collin's in at that position, they're going to have to guard him," Crean said. "Tonight, they really had to guard him because he got hot."

Added Yogi Ferrell: "They may think that they have the matchup when we're playing defense, but at the end of the day, they've got to guard us, too."

Indiana may not ever shoot the ball as well as it did against Maryland, but here's the thing: The Hoosiers have proven they can win even if they don't. They shot the ball poorly against Ohio State, and won. They didn't shoot it great at Illinois, and won.

When they do shoot it like they did on Thursday, though, nobody is beating them.

"It felt like they made about 25 of them," Turgeon said of Indiana's 15 3-pointers. "When I watched the game at Illinois, I said, 'OK, this is a different team.' I knew what we were getting into. I thought we'd defend them a little better than that, but give all the credit to Indiana."

Nights like Thursday night seemed like nothing more than a distant memory in November. Crean sat in front of the media, his eyes filled with tears, trying to make sense of IU's latest off-court incident. He accepted blame for his players' mistakes, and promised to do better.

So far, he's delivering on that promise, both on and off the court. The fans are coming back, and Crean is a big reason why.


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