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For Tom Crean and Indiana, the difference is like Knight and day

Indiana's storied program has struggled, even running afoul of NCAA, since Bob Knight left. But Crean, in his fourth year as coach, has Hoosiers in Sweet 16 — closer to where their fans think they belong.

March 19, 2012|By Chris Foster
  • Indiana Coach Tom Crean has pointed the way back to the top of college basketball for the Hoosiers.
Indiana Coach Tom Crean has pointed the way back to the top of college basketball… (Jonathan Ferrey / Getty…)

Taking the pulse of Indiana basketball requires a visit to Nick's English Pub, which is little more than an angrily tossed chair away from the Bloomington campus.

People come for three things, manager Pete Mikolaitis said: to talk Hoosiers basketball, eat strombolis and play "sink the biz," a drinking game in which you pour from a 60-ounce pitcher of beer into a glass adrift in a 48-ounce bucket of beer.

You sink it, you drink it.

"It's been a popular drinking game here for 20 to 30 years, maybe longer," Mikolaitis said. "It doesn't matter how the team is doing. People are either trying to drown their sorrow or celebrate success."

They're toasting success these days.

Indiana Coach Tom Crean is no Bob Knight. That name still makes Hoosiers fans genuflect. But Crean, in his fourth season, may be nearing knighthood.

The Hoosiers won only 28 games his first three seasons. They can match that total this season with a victory over top-seeded Kentucky in the South Regional on Thursday.

This is the first trip to the Sweet 16 for the Hoosiers since 2002, when coach Mike Davis took them to the national-title game. Mediocrity followed and Davis resigned in 2006. His successor, Kelvin Sampson, lasted only two years before resigning in the face of an NCAA investigation into improper contact with recruits.

Now the program with five national titles — three under Knight — is closer to where those who assemble at Assembly Hall expect it to be. The Hoosiers are 27-8.

"When you go to class, you hear the chatter, there is a buzz about us," senior guard Verdell Jones III said. "When I first got here, there was nothing. You heard crickets. Hoosier hysteria is back."

The turnaround was not quick, nor is it complete. But the bloom was back in Bloomington after the Hoosiers defeated No. 1 Kentucky on a last-second shot in December.

"I was working at Nick's 10 years ago, when IU beat Duke in the Sweet 16," Mikolaitis said. "That was the last time I saw this place that crazy."

A repeat Thursday may convince fans that Crean is Knight's heir.

"The vision never wavered, it really didn't," Crean said last week in Portland, Ore., where Indiana played its first two NCAA tournament games. "We always knew where we wanted to end up."

Still, he said, "I didn't use the word 'patience' with our fans. Nobody knew what they were being patient with."

Indiana fans don't always seem to know what the word "patience" means.

Crean took Marquette to five NCAA tournaments, including the 2003 Final Four. But this was Indiana, where a down season is a first-round NCAA exit.

Never mind that Crean inherited a program with six scholarship players, as well as self-imposed penalties from Sampson's two seasons.

Crean said, "When we first got there, there was no way to think clearly on anything past the next couple of days."

Indiana fans were looking past Crean to Indianapolis, where Brad Stevens was leading Butler to NCAA title games the last two years.

"If someone is having success in this state, it better be IU," Mikolaitis said.

Crean keeps working to win over critics, but Mikolaitis said, "You have to remember, 90% of the people around here think Knight got the short end of the stick."

Like Knight, Crean exerts control over all areas, including approving which faces can be used as the oversized cutout heads fans hold up while opponents shoot free throws.

As for intensity, he is the brother-in-law of NFL coaches Jim and John Harbaugh. Family holidays would seem to require mini-camp preparation. Crean's sideline behavior is alive with Technicolor animation.

A turnover by junior guard Jordan Hulls gave Virginia Commonwealth a quick basket Saturday. The Hoosiers had an easy opportunity on the other end, but before Will Sheehey's layup, Crean called timeout so he could stomp onto the court to scream at Hulls.

"You never know what you're going to get," Jones said. "One day he will be down your throat, yelling at you. The next day, he gives you a hug and is encouraging you."

No one is complaining.

"He's a pretty genuine guy," freshman center Cody Zeller said.

Crean's personality reestablished the Hoosiers' presence within the state, where basketball legends are both real (John Wooden) and fictional (Gene Hackman's Norman Dale in "Hoosiers").

Hulls and Zeller, two key starters, were recognized as Indiana's Mr. Basketball, the state player-of-the-year award, as high school seniors. Hulls was the hometown hero who led Bloomington High to the state title. Zeller's two brothers were also Mr. Basketball winners. But Luke Zeller went to Notre Dame and Tyler Zeller currently plays for North Carolina. Cody stayed home.

"You root and pull for them like crazy as an alum," said New Mexico Coach Steve Alford, a starter for Knight on Indiana's 1987 national-title team. "There have been some hard times. It's neat seeing them being at a national level again, because that's what Indiana is."

Still, there are some holdouts.

A pregame video at Indiana home games includes clips of Knight. "The fans cheer the loudest for that," Jones said.

As for clips showing Crean, Jones said, "Give him time."

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