On December 19, 2015, the tenor of the Indiana basketball season changed.
Down 61-48 and with time winding down, it seemed like Indiana would lose to Notre Dame at Bankers Life Fieldhouse and end an already tumultuous nonconference schedule on a down note. But something clicked in those final 10 minutes of the game for the Hoosiers, who finished the game on a 17-2 to win by seven. In that game, Tom Crean made the right adjustments on defense to get the Hoosiers in position to win.
He's made very few wrong moves since, and now the Hoosiers are outright Big Ten champions.
Crean now has his second outright Big Ten title in four years - something no B1G coach has done since Thad Matta won it back to back in 2006 and 2007. Considering Crean has been on the perennial hot seat ever since the Syracuse loss, he's won back many doubters about his coaching prowess - including myself - this season. This accomplishment makes me believe he should win the Big Ten Coach of the Year.
There are a couple other good candidates in the B1G for this award. Fran McCaffery, despite Iowa's downturn at the end of the season, turned the Hawkeyes into a contender despite losing Aaron White and Gabe Olaseni and being projected to be in the middle of the conference pack. And Greg Gard, who replaced Bo Ryan halfway through the season in Madison, has proven that he is the man for the permanent job in Wisconsin, as the Badgers have won 10 of their last 11 conference games. They'll be a team no one wants to play in March.
However, Tom Crean stands above the rest of the candidates for quite a few reasons. Here's why he deserves the award.
1. He adjusted for losing James Blackmon, Jr. before B1G play started - and dealt with other injuries along the way.
With JBJ having been out for over two months now, it's easy to overlook what he brought to the team. At the time when he was sidelined, Blackmon was the second-leading scorer on the team, was making almost half of his threes, was improving his assists and steals rates, and was very active on the glass. After Blackmon's injury, Crean had to adjust to life without the scoring threat. Out went the three-guard starting lineup and in came Collin Hartman, and the move gave the Hoosiers a balanced lineup with more traditional rotations. The adjustments worked, and the Hoosiers didn't miss a beat. Even with Robert Johnson sidelined during the last two games - leaving IU with only two scholarship guards - Crean was able to make the lineups work. Injuries are a part of the game and never easy to overcome, but Crean did so during the conference schedule.
2. He fixed the team's defense.
Indiana hasn't often been a defense-first team under Crean - the only year I can remember it being so was in 2013-14, when hardly anyone but Yogi had a reliable shot. That led to an offensive revival in 2015 - the only downside of this was that the team couldn't stop anyone. And at the beginning of the year, the Hoosiers looked to be running into the same issues. But once B1G play started, the team tightened up on defense, becomign a threat for blocks, steals, and of course, deflections. Developing Juwan Morgan and OG Anunoby into reliable defenders off the bench certainly helped as well. In nine of the their first 10 B1G games, the Hoosiers held opponents to under one point per possession, and while the defensive efficiency ratings have let up a little in recent games (particularly due to playing better offenses), the Hoosiers still have the fourth-most effecient defense in the B1G according to KenPom.
3. His offseason moves worked.
Here are the per-40 minute stats of two players:
Player A: 14.2 points, 10.0 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.6 blocks, 0.7 steals, 26.7% 3Pt
Player B: 18.4 points, 10.6 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.1 blocks, 2.0 steals, 42.3% 3Pt
Player A is Max Bielfeldt from his previous season at Michigan. As you may have guessed by now, Player B represents Bielfeldt's stats this season. Adding Bielfeldt as a solid contributor off the bench and backup to Thomas Bryant has given the Hoosiers a steady, reliable frontcourt presence. As a grad transfer from another conferece team, Bielfeldt already knew the ins and outs of B1G opponents as well. In addition, Bryant has been as advertised, Morgan and Anunoby have exceeded expectations, and even Harrison Niego has logged great minutes and had a few clutch shots and rebounds as a preferred walk-on. Even the coaching hires worked - Crean has also praised what assistant coach Rob Judson has brought to the team as a game planner, and both Lyonel Anderson and Derek Elston have brought energy to the bench as assistants.
And of course, keeping Yogi Ferrell and Troy Williams around this season didn't hurt either.
4. When team expectations had to be readjusted after a lackluster start, Crean was resilient
Before the season, I knew that Crean had to deliver very good results, with Thomas Bryant coming onto the team to fix the frontcourt woes, and with a veteran leader in Yogi Ferrell leading the charge. But after Maui, I wondered if he'd even survive the entire season as coach. But as Fran Fraschilla tweeted last night, Crean vowed he'd fix things. Now? Maybe another contract extension is in the cards. Not bad for a guy who has a buyout clock website dedicated to him.
In addition, I appreciated how subdued the title was this time around. No net cutting. No "you ruined our program!" Just an emotional locker room speech that was quintessential Tom Crean - a bit dorky, but full of emotion and heart, and fully aware that the work is not done yet.
So give Crean the Coach of the Year award for the Big Ten - he deserves it. And enjoy the unexpected ride that IU has been on ever since that Crossroads Classic victory.