It feels like someone on this blog, along with dozens of other outlets across the Internet, write an article like this every year.
TOM CREAN! IS HE GOOD OR BAD? CAN HE TAKE INDIANA TO THE NEXT LEVEL? HOW WARM IS HIS SEAT? IS THE SWEET SIXTEEN HIS CEILING? IF SO, IS THAT GOOD ENOUGH FOR INDIANA FANS? CAN HE WIN WITHOUT CODY ZELLER? CAN HE WIN WITHOUT YOGI FERRELL? WHAT'S IN THE DAMN WATER BOTTLE? HOW MANY SHIRTS DOES HE OWN?
And the reason this stuff gets written every year is because every year Tom Crean seemingly has to justify his position / salary / competency as head coach of one of the country's most storied programs. This year, however, is different. The offseason went off essentially without a hitch, and a program that had become far too accustomed to spending chunks of the summer and fall on crisis management was instead able to focus exclusively on getting better. And, if history is any indication, the extra time will be necessary for this season's success.
Coming off his last Big Ten title, Crean and the Hoosiers stumbled to a 17-15 record, famously turning down an invite to the CBI in an arrogant fashion befitting of a program that didn't just go 17-15. During the year, calls to replace him began crop up as it became evident the team was not going to be able to plug the void left behind from the likes of Jordan Hulls, Christian Watford, Cody Zeller, and Victor Oladipo.
The fever pitch came the following season; a year that began with drug-related suspensions and one player accidentally hitting another with a vehicle, then the weekly radio show failed to screen out a caller asking Coach Crean point-blank why he deserved to keep his job. Prognostications of another lost season were briefly assuaged with a 5-1 start in B1G play before reemerging with renewed vigor as the team stumbled to the finish line, washing out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament after being a somewhat shocking inclusion to begin with.
Two seasons removed from a Big Ten Title and a #1 seed, Tom's seat was hotter than it ever had been. While everyone expected a rebuild after the guts of that team moved on, no one expected to fall that far and no one expected to still be clawing back toward relevance two full seasons later. A program desperately in need of momentum and a reliable big man managed to get both in one fell swoop, as the embattled head coach locked down a commitment with McDonald's All-American center Thomas Bryant, who is arguably the second-most important recruit that Coach Crean has landed at Indiana.
With a roster that was well-balanced with both senior leadership, returning minutes, and plenty of talent and athleticism, the Hoosiers looked ready to return to the upper echelon of the Big Ten before promptly having a miserable Maui Tournament performance, getting their doors blown off by Duke, and losing James Blackmon Jr. just before the start of conference play. Looking dead in the water and down double digits to Notre Dame in the Crossroads Classic, it certainly felt like Tom Crean was much closer to his last game on Indiana's sideline than his next Big Ten title.
We know what happened next: Indiana came roaring back to defeat the Irish, opened up conference play with seven straight victories and instead of limping toward the NCAA Tournament, they finished 15-3, winning the title outright by two games and getting completely shafted by the committee with a 5-seed that pitted them against erstwhile annual opponent Kentucky in the second round. In, perhaps, Tom Crean's finest victory to date, the Hoosiers took control of the second half's second half as newcomers Bryant and OG Anunoby showed their evolution in front of a national audience en route to the program's first tournament victory over a Power 5 program in Tom Crean's tenure. A bizarro shooting performance against #1-seeded and eventual National Runner-Up North Carolina ended the Hoosiers' tournament run in a familiar round.
So here we are, again, coming off an outright Big Ten title and losing a large chunk of those responsible for it. Yogi Ferrell leaves as one of the finest, most decorated players to ever put on the jersey; Troy Williams, despite all your bad takes, was a stalwart on the wing for three seasons; Nick Zeisloft and Max Bielfeldt only started out of necessity, but saved Indiana's ass on numerous occasions and provided rock-solid depth throughout the year. All of them are gone.
But Tom Crean remains, tasked with climbing the mountain again without some of his most trusted tools and thousands of mouths ready to holler the minute he falters anywhere short of the summit.
With regard to pressure, coaching in Assembly Hall probably isn't all that different to pitching in Yankee Stadium. The expectations are sky-high and are accompanied by a margin for error that is exceedingly small. This comes as no surprise to Tom, who essentially acknowledged it from day one when he stated, practically starstruck: "It's Indiana. It's Indiana." He doesn't need to be reminded about what is expected of him because, in all likelihood, he already expects it from himself and his program.
But he will be reminded, constantly, because that's what comes with the territory. Fair or not, Hoosier Nation can't help itself; and each year that passes without a National Championship, the impatience grows a little bit more. Passion cuts both ways and most Indiana fans won't be placated by conference championships and Sweet Sixteens forever. They want to reach the pinnacle of the college basketball world, something nearly every current student wasn't alive to see the last time it happened for the Hoosiers.
But maybe any article about Tom Crean on the dawn of this season shouldn't be questioning his capability or justifying his position. Maybe it just needs to acknowledge that for the second time in four years, not only is Indiana a reigning Big Ten champion, but they're also replacing key cogs across the roster and four key returnees spent at least part of 2016 getting surgically repaired. Anything Indiana achieves this season will, of course, be credited to a host of familiar faces, but there'll be plenty of new guys who will have to play key roles if the Hoosiers want to progress into uncharted territory. The similarities to the start of the 2013-14 season are difficult to ignore.
Hopefully, for Tom Crean, they end there. Otherwise, those articles are going to start cropping up again. Hell, another exit in the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament might be all it takes.
After all: it's Indiana.