Bloomington, Ind. — Indiana coach Tom Crean has come a long way in 12 months.
Instead of being bombarded by questions about his job, Crean confidently speaks his mind.
Instead of being badgered by critics, he’s hearing from supporters.
And rather than getting emotional, Crean remains all business as he prepares for Friday’s East Regional semifinals against top-seeded North Carolina.
Yes, he’s proved the naysayers wrong once again.
“That’s not the drive,” Crean said after last weekend’s 73-67 second-round victory over Kentucky. “The drive is the togetherness that’s being built with them (the players) and watching them come together over the period of time that they have.”
Right now, all is well in Hoosier land.
Indiana has won two regular-season Big Ten titles in four seasons, and is about to play in its third regional semifinal game in five years.
Even the headline-grabbing website launched last March, counting down the days until Crean’s buyout price dropped, has added a new message congratulating Crean.
By almost all accounts, this season may have been Crean’s best.
He took a team that suffered three embarrassing early losses, lost one of its top scorers and dealt with a series of late-season injuries, and has gotten them here — two victories away from Indiana’s first Final Four trip since 2002.
“I’m very happy for him because he’s such a smart coach in what he tells us and what he wants us to do,” senior point guard Kevin “Yogi” Ferrell said. “After that rough start, he kept pushing us, believing in us because he saw our potential. In my opinion, he should be (national) coach of the year.”
But getting to this point hasn’t been easy.
It took Crean three years to dig out from the wreckage he inherited — a program tainted by an NCAA scandal, full of academic woes and disciplinary concerns, and one that had only eight scholarship players on the roster in 2008-09.
When things finally started changing, with Christian Watford’s incredible buzzer-beating shot to upset No. 1 Kentucky in December 2011, the hopes of Hoosiers fans soared.
Three months after Watford’s shot, the Hoosiers were back in the Sweet 16. Seven months later, they were ranked No. 1 in the preseason poll and stayed there for most of the 2012-13 season when they captured their first outright Big Ten title in two decades.
But a late-season slump and another Tournament exit in the 2013 regional semifinals prompted fans to start asking whether Crean’s hard practices wore down his team and ruined the Hoosiers shot at a sixth national title. So when the Hoosiers failed to make the postseason in 2014 and started the 2014-15 season with three players suspended and another in the hospital with a head injury, the boo-birds returned.
After announcing the suspensions in November 2014, Crean spent 45 minutes on a usually friendly radio call-in show being peppered by fans about what was wrong inside the program.
More questions came after Crean booted three players off the team last offseason for additional transgressions.
Crean rewarded those who stood by him — and converted the doubters — by delivering one of the most improbable seasons in school history.
Another regional semifinals loss Friday could generate a new round of debate about Crean’s ability to win big games.
Crean, at least, has a whole team ready to debunk that theory, too.
“There is a real drive for each other. There is a real care for each other and there is a real desire to get better,” Crean said. “When you’ve got that, I’ll take our chances and let’s go see what happens.”