At the final whistle, Tom Crean strode to midcourt and hugged his friend and coaching counterpart John Calipari, patting him on the back as Calipari shouted into Crean’s ear over the screaming Indiana fans and the swaying Indiana band. Crean walked in front of the Indiana cheering section of Wells Fargo Arena and clapped his hands, nodding in acknowledgment of a group that, this time last year, may have wished the coach gone.
The fraught relationship between Crean and the state of Indiana toggled back toward cozy Saturday night in Des Moines, when the fifth-seeded Hoosiers eliminated their arch rival and infrequent opponent, fourth-seeded Kentucky, from the NCAA tournament with a 73-67 victory. The win sent Indiana to the Sweet 16 for the third time under Crean, but given the opponent and the circumstances, it may stand as Crean’s biggest in his eight seasons in Bloomington.
Kentucky and Indiana, both crown-jewel programs, cannot decide on how to set up a regular season series despite Crean and Calipari’s friendship, and so their tournament showdowns take on crazed stakes. Players understand they are playing for even more than bracket survival – “one for Hoosierland,” senior point guard Yogi Ferrell said in an on-court interview with CBS. It was also one for Crean, the oft-maligned coach who prepared his team for an epic confrontation with part of his mind drifting elsewhere.
During Indiana’s tournament run, Crean has been in frequent contact with Trey Schwab, a close friend and a former assistant coach during his days building Marquette. Schwab had been moved to palliative care in a Wisconsin hospital as his body rejected the lungs he had received in a transplant 10 years ago.
Minutes after the victory, Crean conducted an on-court interview with CBS. He looked into the camera and told Schwab he would call him in a couple minutes, that he had hoped Schwab had seen the game. Crean reflected on the pain Tom Izzo, another friend, felt the day prior when Michigan State’s season ended. Crean realized he has found relief and escape in his work, and he felt grateful he had more work to do.
“I don’t want to stop coaching this team,” Crean told a CBS reporter on the court, his voice catching. “So that’s what I’m most thankful for, that I get to keep coaching them another week.”
Crean will keep coaching after an upset few saw coming. The Hoosiers and Wildcats had not played in four years, and Calipari entered with the perceived edge in talent, starting with the back court of stabilizing Tyler Ulis and scoring Jamal Murray. The contest delivered in drama, if not style. Despite the dazzling collection of athletes on the floor, the game lacked flow, constantly interrupted by fouls and marred by missed shots.
Down the stretch, Kentucky’s players took turns attempting to create offense while Indiana surgically executed half-court sets and created open shots. Crean’s game plan to attack Kentucky’s rail-thin post players with beefy, skilled freshman Thomas Bryant paid off in the second half. Indiana built a 10-point lead and held off Ulis’s late scoring binge by draining free throws.
Crean won six games his first year at Indiana and then resurrected a program that had been wrecked by former coach Kelvin Sampson’s recruiting scandal. In 2012, he took the Hoosiers to the Sweet 16 and won national coach of the year. Indiana reached another region semifinal a year later.
He should be revered in the state, but instead his relationship with his fan base is complicated. He has turned over his roster at a dizzying rate, often recruiting over or running off players, to the disappointment of fans. He can be short with boosters, combative with opposing coaches and grumpy with members of the media.
At venerable Indiana, contentious Crean lived with a short leash. He missed the tournament in 2014, and last year, the Hoosiers started strong but slid to the bubble and lost their first NCAA tournament game. Rumors abounded about donors and alumni attempting to raise the $11 million necessary to buy Crean out of his contract. They didn’t, but in the Associated Press’s season-preview rundown of coaches on the hot seat, Crean topped the list.
At the moment, the relationship is once again a beautiful partnership. The question now becomes how far the Hoosiers can advance. The answer, so long as the banged-up Hoosiers heal up this week, is Crean has a team good enough to reach his first Final Four since Dwyane Wade dragged his Marquette team there in 2003.
Freshman reserve OG Anunoby has emerged as a defensive weapon, an athletic stopper who invades passing lanes and shuts down both point guards and power forwards. Ferrell brings experience and ace three-point shooting. Bryant provides interior strength. For all his wildness, Troy Williams’s playmaking athleticism rivals anyone’s in the country.
No matter what happens next, Crean knows he can coach them all at least another week. He earned it Saturday night in a defining victory. He could lose himself in work some more, but first he planned to call his friend.