By Jon Rothstein
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Tom Crean had already virtually done everything in his coaching career except win a national championship before he even got to Indiana.
In Crean’s first head coaching position at Marquette, he built the Golden Eagles into a national program, took them to the Final Four in 2003, and perennially contended for Big East championships.
From 2002-2008, Crean’s teams never won fewer than 19 games in a season.
But as much success as Crean had in Milwaukee, he never would have gotten the perspective he has right now if he didn’t take over a program as decimated as Indiana was when he arrived in Bloomington in 2008.
“It’s hard to quantify,” Crean said of what he learned during his first four years at Indiana, where the Hoosiers were a combined 28-66 during his first three seasons. “You start appreciating how hard it is to win. As hard as we worked as a staff and as hard as our players worked, it was never enough.”
It is now.
Indiana returns five starters from last year’s Sweet 16 team that won 27 games and split with national champion Kentucky. The Hoosiers have also added a top flight recruiting class headlined by power point guard Yogi Ferrell, a floor general that should have a legitimate chance to start as a freshman.
The buzz is back in Bloomington — and it’s beyond palpable.
“There’s such an anticipation for the upcoming season,” Crean said last week. “It’s been that way since the spring. It helps you get even more focused for what lies ahead.”
For good reason, Indiana is the unanimous pick to win the Big Ten in what could be one of the better years in the conference’s recent memory. They’re also at the top of nearly every national preseason poll along with Louisville and Kentucky.
While the Hoosiers had a very good team last year, their depth has a chance to make them great in 2012-13.
With Ferrell set to have a major role at point guard from the first day of practice, it’s beyond conceivable that his presence could allow sharpshooter Jordan Hulls to move off the ball with regularity.
“He’s got the best chance to get more opportunities because of the new players that are in our program,” Crean said of Hulls, a senior guard who shot 49.3% from three-point range last season. “Yogi and Jordan can be really, really good together. The two of them offensively on the floor at the same time will be huge for us.”
The competition for minutes for Indiana’s wings is going to be beyond relentless. Victor Oladipo and Will Sheehey both started for the Hoosiers last season and Remy Abell became a key reserve in the latter part of the year. Freshmen Jeremy Hollowell also figures to be in the mix for minutes as well as Maurice Creek, a 6-5 guard who came to Bloomington with big time pedigree but suffered season ending injuries in each of the past three years.
“He’s getting better every week but it’s going to take time,” Crean said of Creek, a red shirt junior. “I love the depth we have on our wings. Victor (Oladipo) and Will (Sheehey) could be dynamite together defensively but they’ve got to be consistent, and Remy Abell has come back a much better player. He proved last year he could play in long stretches.”
Indiana added two talented freshmen front court players in Peter Jurkin and Hanner Mosquera-Perea and has arguably the best power forward-center combo in college basketball returning with Christian Watford and Cody Zeller.
The 7-foot Zeller is a major candidate for Preseason National Player of the Year and Watford played near flawless basketball down the stretch of last season. During the Hoosiers’ last eight games of the year, Watford averaged 16.1 points and 7.5 rebounds per game while shooting an impressive 51.7% from three-point range.
“He knows how to play against both small and big defenders,” Crean said of the 6-9 Watford. “He’s just got to add a few more things in the post and he’ll be really tough to stop.”
It will be adjustment for the players on Indiana to begin a season in bold print rather than in the shadows. The Hoosiers have the personnel needed for a terrific year but they’ve never had to deal with the type of expectations they’re set to encounter.
Still, Crean is a master at not allowing any of his players to look beyond their next workout or practice and should have this team more than prepared to begin Big Ten play in late December.
Indiana will play Georgia and then either Georgetown or UCLA in November as part of the Legends Classic in Brooklyn, host North Carolina as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, and also play Butler in Indianapolis.
It’s clear this program is at another level with the addition of their freshmen class. While certain guys may have had guaranteed minutes over the past few seasons, that’s definitely not the case anymore.
“Players lose an edge if they don’t have somebody competing with them for their spot on a daily basis,” Crean said “I don’t ever think of us now as having five starters. I think of us having eight to nine guys with starting capabilities that could finish a game if we needed them to. That’s where our program is at now with the pieces we’ve added.”
How far do you think this Indiana team can go in 2012-13? Be heard in the comments below…