The dynamics of the Big Ten race changed this week with IU's home loss to Wisconsin and Michigan's road win at the Barn.
It's difficult to believe that it was only one game ago that I wrote this post discussing the season going forward. Further, who could have imagined a week ago, at halftime of IU's game over Minnesota, that the next 60 minutes of basketball would be among the most frustrating of the season. Until this week, it appeared that as strong as the Big Ten is, IU still remained the front-runner in the Big Ten. Following IU's ugly home loss to Wisconsin and Michigan's impressive win at Minnesota, it's clear that the Wolverines are now the favorite to win the league. Two weeks from today, the ESPN Gameday crew comes to Bloomington for the first time in five years, and IU and Michigan play that night in what was expected to be, and still may be, the most important game on the Big Ten schedule regarding the race for the conference title. Because it's an IU home game, that one always was going to mean more for IU than for Michigan, but now that the Hoosiers have dropped a home game and U-M has the most impressive road win of the season, IU has no room for error. IU simply cannot lose another home game, and also can't slip up on the road against the mid-to-lower teams such as Purdue, Illinois, and Northwestern.
I suppose it's nice that the Indiana basketball program has rebounded sufficiently that a 15-2 record is viewed as cause for panic. Of course, a large part of the current pessimism is based upon the nature of the losses and who the opponents were. Butler's Brad Stevens and Wisconsin's Bo Ryan are among the best coaches in the country, and certainly are well-known for their ability to bog things down for more talented team and to force their opponents into play a halfcourt game that they don't usually play. That's the blueprint for beating IU, apparently. Perhaps rather than worrying about it, we should thank Bo and Brad for making that so clear in December and January rather than waiting until March. That is the most important point to remember. The NCAA Tournament is two months away. Everything that is apparent to the fans is apparent to the coaches. the Wisconsin loss is disappointing for a number of reasons. The eleven-game losing streak to the Badgers is tied for the longest against another team in IU history and is the longest in nearly 100 years. Bo Ryan is simply insufferable, encouraging his team to clutch and grab and shove with the understanding that the refs can't see everything, and all the while acting as if his team is constantly persecuted by the opponent and the officials. Most importantly, it makes IU's regular season goals--Big Ten title, #1 seed--look a little less realistic. But again, it's early.
Finally, a word about Tom Crean. Obviously, it did not appear as if he had a good enough plan, against Butler and especially against Wisconsin, for how to handle an opponent that controls the tempo. I don't believe that anyone would list Crean as a top ten game coach or anything of the sort. But it gets fairly tiresome to hear and read the insults slung his way from both inside the IU community and outside. Most tiresome is the notion that some other coach could do better than Crean has done with this group of players. My answer to that is not yes or no. It is, so what? Yes, perhaps some other coach could have convinced Christian Watford and Maurice Creek to leave their home regions to play for a program with an uncertain future. Perhaps some other coach could have identified sub-100 recruits such as Victor Oladipo and Will Sheehey and convinced them to come to the midwest. Perhaps some other coach could have convinced the likes of Cody Zeller and Yogi Ferrell and Jeremy Hollowell and Hanner Mosquera-Perea to commit to IU during a string of 20-loss seasons. Yes, critics, you are correct. There probably are some coaches who could do a bit better if they were simply handed the roster and the program that Tom Crean has painstakingly recruited and developed over the past five years. That's supposed to impress me? As I have said time and again, I'm by no means a Crean sycophant. There is no guarantee that NCAA titles or Final Four appearances are in our immediate future. But Crean is the reason that we are even talking about such things this season, so I find it fairly ridiculous and disrespectful to suggest that he is failing with this team. It's all "coaching." The recruiting, the conditioning, the player development, etc. He's doing fine.