Another year of college basketball in the books, another Big Ten team in the Final Four that didn’t win a national championship. Since Michigan State won a national title in 2000, the Big Ten has sent six different programs to the Final Four — Indiana, Illinois, Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan, and now Wisconsin. Excluding Rutgers and Maryland, since neither has played a Big Ten game yet,1 that’s half the conference. Five of those six made it to the national championship game. Three of those five lost the title game by single digits. And still, none of them have claimed the ultimate prize.
Related: It goes without saying, but Maryland’s 2002 national championship absolutely does not count as a title for the Big Ten.
What makes this so frustrating is that the Big Ten has been the deepest regular-season conference in America for the past several years. Turn your TV to ESPN on any Saturday or Tuesday from January to March, and there’s a good chance you’ll witness a hard-court bloodbath taking place on some Big Ten campus. Every conference touts how “there are no easy wins,” but nowhere is that more true than in the Big Ten. Survive the gantlet of a Big Ten schedule and the NCAA tournament will almost feel easy. At least that’s the theory.
Instead, being a Big Ten fan during March Madness has become a brutal mindfuck. Cheering for your team to survive the NCAA tournament is stressful enough, but once your school gets bounced, your brain gets only more scrambled. Say you’re an Illinois fan, for example. If the Illini are out of the tournament, you initially aren’t going to cheer for Michigan, Michigan State, or Ohio State, because they’re your rivals. Then you realize that a rising tide lifts all boats, so you root for those teams to lift the Big Ten’s prestige in the hope that it will benefit Illinois’s reputation. But then you think: What kind of garbage would it be if Wisconsin’s 2014 team won a national title, but Illinois’s 2005 team didn’t? You’re convinced that if those two teams played, Illinois would win by infinity, so you again turn against other Big Ten teams. If Deron Williams, Dee Brown, Luther Head, and the 2005 Illini can’t have a national title, no Big Ten team should.
Eventually, all of your Big Ten rivals come up short, you laugh at their demise, and when November rolls around and people start calling the Big Ten overrated because it can’t win a national title, you defend the conference in heated Twitter arguments. By February, the Big Ten establishes itself as the deepest conference in the nation, you pat yourself on the back for being right, and then the NCAA tournament comes and knocks you back on your ass. Lather, rinse, repeat.
That’s how it’s been for a half-generation of Big Ten fans. And that’s how it’s probably going to be again this year, as the Big Ten should be the most competitive conference in America, with just one obvious contender for a national title.
Big Ten basketball: just good enough to drive you insane.
The Top Three Teams
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3. Ohio State
I understand why this is the most-hyped Wisconsin team ever. Four starters return from a Final Four team that was an Aaron Harrison prayer away from playing for a national championship. Two of those starters, Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker, are upperclassman NBA locks. The other two, Traevon Jackson and Josh Gasser, are seniors. Nigel Hayes, last season’s Big Ten sixth man of the year, will join the starting lineup. Duje Dukan and Bronson Koenig are experienced role players who don’t make mistakes. And since it’s Wisconsin, you already know that an unheralded freshman, a walk-on, a former manager, a guy from the band, or some combination of all four will come out of nowhere and make huge plays. Last year’s Wisconsin team was the most entertaining and likable team that Bo Ryan has ever had, and all the main guys, except Ben Brust, are back for more. What’s not to be excited about?
But something feels wrong. The hype is just too much. Am I the only one who looks back on last season and thinks the Buzzcuts weren’t that good? Don’t get me wrong — I spent months telling anyone who would listen that the 2013-14 Wisconsin squad was more dynamic than typical Ryan teams, and that it would surprise people in the NCAA tournament. But while we applaud Wisconsin for making a Final Four run, shouldn’t we also acknowledge that the team finished three games back in the Big Ten race, that it didn’t even make it to the Big Ten tournament championship game, and that it had a three-game home losing streak in January that included a loss to NORTH-F’ING-WESTERN?2 I’m not ready to predict a 35-win season from Wisconsin just because Kaminsky went nuts against Arizona in the Elite Eight.
Buzzcut fans attribute that horrid January stretch to a flu epidemic, and that probably was partly to blame. But awful shot selection and several embarrassing mental breakdowns on defense also had something to do with it.
That said, Wisconsin deserves to be the clear Big Ten favorite. I just don’t think the Badgers are going to steamroll through the conference like all the hype would have you believe. I also worry about their national title chances, since they lack the two qualities that each of the last 11 national champions had: NBA-caliber guard play and elite defense. Every national champion since the 2004 UConn team has had a future NBA guard in its starting lineup and a defense that ranked in KenPom’s top 25. As of now, Wisconsin has neither. Jackson and Gasser have almost no chance at NBA careers, and the Buzzcuts defense ranked 49th in KenPom’s database last season. Maybe Wisconsin will get back to playing typical Ryan defense in 2014-15. Maybe Dekker can reclassify as a guard to give the Buzzcuts an NBA prospect in the backcourt. Maybe this trend is just a coincidence. I certainly wouldn’t be shocked if Wisconsin cruised through the Big Ten to another Final Four berth. I just think we need to pump the brakes on the hype machine for now.
Speaking of hype … NEBRASKETBALL!!!!!!!!
I have no idea if Nebraska is actually the second-best team in the Big Ten, because nobody has any idea what the second-best team in the Big Ten is. Six teams — Nebraska, Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan, Iowa, and Minnesota — are expected to finish second through seventh in the league, but how that shakes out is anybody’s guess.
In truth, I’m somewhat worried that Nebraska will be this year’s version of Iowa. Remember how the Hawkeyes improved every season under Fran McCaffery, made it to the NIT championship in 2013, brought nearly everyone back last season, and convinced Big Ten experts that their experience and steady progress would turn them into a Big Ten contender? And then remember how Iowa plateaued? The Hawkeyes were never a threat to win the Big Ten, they lost seven of their last eight games, they were lucky to make the NCAA tournament, and then they got bounced by Tennessee in a play-in game. Nebraska’s story is basically the same as Iowa’s was last season, so I’m concerned the Huskers will suffer a similar fate.
The best reason to believe Nebraska won’t fizzle is Terran Petteway, who led the Big Ten in scoring last season and will likely do the same this season. Petteway is good enough to single-handedly win Nebraska games and at times is unguardable. So when you look at a Huskers supporting cast that includes Shavon Shields, Walter Pitchford, and Tai Webster, it’s hard not to believe in Nebrasketball.
Finally, I’m picking Ohio State third because I actually think losing Aaron Craft and LaQuinton Ross will be a blessing in disguise. He’d never admit it publicly, but Thad Matta seemed handcuffed by those two last season. Ross was the only Buckeye who could create his own offense, and Craft was a shut-down defender and the face of the program. This gave Matta little choice but to play those guys as many minutes as possible, even when Craft was a damaging offensive liability (the game at Indiana) and Ross was giving less than his best effort (as seemed to happen in alternating games throughout his career).
This year will be different. The Buckeyes have more depth and athleticism, and Matta will have more freedom to play with his rotations. For all the concerns heading into the season about who will score for Ohio State, it should be noted that Shannon Scott and McDonald’s All American recruit D’Angelo Russell are an offensive improvement over last year’s backcourt of Craft and Lenzelle Smith by a factor of at least 10 billion. The larger issue will be defense, which is rarely a weak spot on Matta’s teams. The early signs suggest Ohio State will play mostly zone this season, which is another way of saying that Matta doesn’t trust his team defensively.3
The only other time Matta relied heavily on a zone defense at Ohio State was in 2009, when the Buckeyes tried to implement a hundred different versions of a 3-2 zone, none of them stuck, and all of them ended with Buckeyes fans pulling their hair out as Ohio State kept giving up so many wide-open corner 3s.
Then again, Ohio State has a ton of tall, long-armed wing players, so maybe playing zone will just be a way for Matta to put his five best players on the floor without worrying how they’ll match up on defense? Yeah, let’s go with that.
Best College Player: Frank Kaminsky (Wisconsin)
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I may have seemed overly negative about Wisconsin earlier, so let me clear the air here: The Buzzcuts are going to be really, really good. They should win the Big Ten by at least a couple of games. It’s just that Wisconsin always plays with an edge, and I can’t shake the feeling that being heralded as the greatest thing to hit America’s Dairyland since the concept of indoor water parks will make it hard for these players to keep that hard-nosed edge. I’m also worried that Buzzcuts fans have a national-championship-or-bust mentality, which would be unfair to this team. A national title is a realistic goal, and Wisconsin fans have every right to be disappointed if it doesn’t happen. But this season shouldn’t be considered a failure if the Buzzcuts don’t win it all.
No matter how this season unfolds, I’ll be cheering for Wisconsin almost every step of the way, and Frank “Too Many Nicknames” Kaminsky is a huge reason why. We’ll get to the on-court stuff in a second. For now, let’s talk about how Kaminsky is the most likable player in college basketball. Go read Pablo Torre’s profile of Kaminsky and tell me you don’t want to go back to college just to hang out with Wisconsin basketball players. Some highlights:
• Kaminsky is nicknamed “The Tank” (obviously), “The Moose” (clearly his best moniker), and “Joe College.” In other words, Frank Kaminsky is Andy Bernard.
• He uses his long arms to cheat at Chuck E. Cheese pop-a-shot games.
• He packs a PlayStation for every road trip so he can play Duje Dukan in FIFA the night before games.
• He got $9 back on his apartment’s $3,400 security deposit because he’d thrown his controller so many times after FIFA rage quits that he damaged the blinds. (College basketball stars are just like us!)
• He drives a moped that he bought off Craigslist for $1,000 and named “Jody.”
Kaminsky is a 7-foot goofball who is so relatable, it almost makes you jealous. How can you root against him?
Oh, right — because he either torched your team or he’s about to torch your team. I’m guessing Arizona fans aren’t too fond of Kaminsky after he shot their team out of the Elite Eight. Of all the great individual performances in last season’s NCAA tournament, Kaminsky versus Arizona was probably my favorite. Aaron Gordon and Rondae-Hollis Jefferson couldn’t bang with The Moose, and Zeus “Zeus” Zeuszeuski couldn’t keep Kaminsky in front of him. Figuring out how to stop Kaminsky that night might as well have been quantum physics for Arizona coach Sean Miller. I’m not sure how anyone could forget such a performance, but watch these highlights in case you need a refresher:
The biggest mistake you can make about Kaminsky is to say he’s just a big guy who can shoot. There’s so much more to his game. Yes, he can shoot 3s, but he’s a great ball handler for his size, he’s a phenomenal passer, he can score on the block, and he’s even got a little bit of midrange game. Now that Doug McDermott is in the NBA, Kaminsky is the most versatile offensive player in college basketball.
Jump on The Moose’s back, Wisconsin, and let him lead you to the promised land.
Best Pro Prospect: Caris LeVert (Michigan)
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John Beilein better stop developing his guys into NBA prospects before people start wondering how the hell Michigan didn’t win a national championship in 2013.4 Those of us paying attention, of course, know that 2013 Nik Stauskas wasn’t quite yet Big Ten Player of the Year Nik Stauskas and 2013 Caris LeVert was basically just a string bean who landed at Michigan after a bunch of other schools passed on him. Still, it’s easy to imagine, 20 years from now, some idiot like me crapping all over Beilein for not being able to produce a national title with five first-round draft picks (and one second-round pick) on one team.5
Cue Michigan fans: “I’ll tell you how — that bullshit call on Trey Burke when he pinned Peyton Siva’s shot against the glass!” (This is a completely valid complaint, by the way.)
For the sake of completeness, Glenn Robinson III was the second-round pick, and the first-round picks were or will be: Trey Burke, Mitch McGary, Nik Stauskas, Tim Hardaway Jr., and LeVert.
In all seriousness, Beilein has done an amazing job developing LeVert over the past three years, which comes as no surprise at this point. In each of the last two seasons, Beilein players who weren’t blue-chip recruits — Trey Burke and Nik Stauskas — were named POY in the deepest conference in college basketball (and, in Burke’s case, national player of the year). LeVert might even continue the streak this season, which would be the first time in Big Ten history that the same school has produced three straight conference players of the year.
I suspect that Beilein’s knack for player development comes from the confidence he instills in players. You can tell from how loose the Wolverines are that Beilein gives them the freedom to make mistakes in pursuit of great plays. Not every coach does this. Far too many college basketball players are conditioned to be so scared of screwing up that they almost never take risks. With Beilein, it feels like the first thing every Michigan freshman hears when he arrives on campus is the “smart, kind, important” talk from The Help. Michigan players might occasionally make mistakes, but two steps forward and one step back is better than never taking any steps at all.
Anyway, that’s my best guess as to how LeVert transformed into an All-American candidate in a little more than two years. His length, athleticism, and ability to score from anywhere on the court make it easy to see why his nickname is “Baby Durant.” And even though the Wolverines aren’t known for their defensive prowess, LeVert can be a lockdown defender when he needs to be. As a team, Michigan looks awfully thin on the inside, where Max Bielfeldt, who averaged 4.7 minutes per game last season, is the most experienced big man. But with LeVert leading the way alongside players like Zak Irvin, Derrick Walton, and Spike Albrecht, it would be foolish to count out the Wolverines.
Most Underrated Player: Denzel Valentine (Michigan State)
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There are three reasons Denzel Valentine hasn’t gotten the respect he deserves from Big Ten fans.
1. He was on a stacked team last season.
It’s hard to be considered one of the conference’s best players when you’re the fifth-best guy on your own team. With Gary Harris, Keith Appling, and Adreian Payne gone, expect Valentine’s role and his production to grow.
2. He’s not great at anything.
Valentine averaged 8.0 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 3.8 assists last season. He shot 41 percent from the field and 38 percent from the 3-point line. He’s not a defensive specialist. He averaged 1.8 turnovers per game. Valentine’s stats don’t jump off the box score and his talent doesn’t jump off the screen when you watch him play. But just because he doesn’t grab your attention doesn’t mean he isn’t productive. In fact, it’s easy to point at his stats and say that he’s good, but not great, at everything (except free throw shooting). Last season, even though he was overshadowed by other Spartans, Valentine almost always made something positive happen when he was on the court. Sometimes he scored, sometimes he rebounded, sometimes he racked up assists, and sometimes he did it all.
3. He’s easy to hate.
This is the big one. Now that Craft has graduated, I’d bet my third nut that Valentine will be the Big Ten’s most hated player. Remember Walter Hodge on those back-to-back national-title Florida teams? Joakim Noah was the easy, big-name guy to hate, but Hodge was the worst to me. I’ll never forget sitting on the bench at the 2007 national championship and watching Hodge do the Gator chomp, hype up the crowd, and talk smack. Noah did those things, too, but he was a star who’d earned the right to piss people off. Hodge was a seventh man who played only 11 minutes in that game. He barely contributed more than I did in the national title game, yet he acted as if he had carried the Gators. He was basically an annoying hype man.
That’s the vibe Big Ten fans got from Valentine last season — Harris, Payne, Appling, and Branden Dawson would do the heavy lifting, and Valentine would get the crowd up, stick his tongue out, and be obnoxiously animated. Oh, and don’t get opposing fans started on how he just has to be soooo flashy when he leads the fast break.
(I don’t know how good Michigan State will be, but I do know that Dawson was on the business end of all of those passes, I know that Valentine and Dawson are both still at MSU, and so I therefore know there will be plenty of entertaining moments involving the Spartans.)
When you say that Valentine has some serious game, many Big Ten fans will probably call him a bum because they hate him. But Denzel Valentine is no bum.
Best Senior With a Slim Chance at an NBA Career: D.J. Newbill (Penn State)
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D.J. Newbill took a rocky path to Penn State. First, he was screwed over by Buzz Williams, who took away Newbill’s scholarship after Newbill had already signed with Marquette because Jamil Wilson wanted to transfer to the Golden Eagles from Oregon and Williams was out of scholarships.6 Then he ended up playing one season at Southern Miss before transferring to Penn State. Over the past two seasons, Newbill has averaged 17 points per game and scored more points in the Big Ten than any other player except Iowa’s Roy Devyn Marble. Now that he’s a senior and Tim Frazier has graduated, Newbill’s scoring might leap into the range of 20-22 points per game. No Big Ten player has averaged more than 20 points since JaJuan Johnson and Talor Battle did in 2011, and no one in the conference has averaged 21 since Eric Gordon in 2008. Meanwhile, the highest scoring average in the Big Ten over the last 10 years belongs to — you guessed it — Kris Humpries, who averaged 21.7 points in 2004.
How ridiculous is it that Newbill wasn’t allowed to go to another Big East school after Marquette cut him? “You can’t play for a rival after you signed with us because that would be unethical. Also, you’re cut because someone better came along after we committed to you.”
The stars are aligned for Newbill to make a run at Humphries’s mark. That’s the good news for Penn State fans. The bad news is that Newbill might hurt the Nittany Lions’ chances in the process. With Frazier gone, Newbill will be forced to take over at point guard, much as he did in 2013 when Frazier was out with a ruptured Achilles. Newbill scored plenty that season, but he also averaged nearly as many turnovers as assists. It remains unclear whether Newbill, a natural shooting guard, will be able to manage all the other responsibilities of running the point.7 Can he create offense for his teammates? Does he even care about creating offense for his teammates? Can he take care of the ball? I’m not sure. I do know that you could play Newbill at center and he’d still find a way to get buckets.
Most Frustrating Player: A.J. Hammons (Purdue)
Eric Gibson explored the uncertainties of Newbill’s move to the point really well in this article.
Mike McGinnis/Getty Images
I hope you’re sitting down for this, because there’s a chance you’ll be so excited you might start throwing things: WE GET AT LEAST TWO MORE GAMES OF AMIR WILLIAMS versus A.J. HAMMONS!!!
How great would it be if the Big Ten made both Purdue–Ohio State games start at 8 a.m. just to see if those two big men would even show up? Or what if instead of playing the games, we just put a bunch of Ohio State and Purdue fans in a room to argue over which player is more frustrating, and the winner of that debate got credit for winning the game? You know what? I’ll settle it right now: Hammons is the most frustrating player in the Big Ten, because he’s talented enough to be a top-three pick in the NBA draft but can’t be bothered to give a consistent effort.
Williams was a McDonald’s All American who has shown flashes of greatness over his career at Ohio State. But he also has an obvious ceiling and the Buckeyes have never really needed him. Sure, having Williams consistently at his best would make OSU a Final Four contender, but the team would make the tournament even if he never saw the court.
Hammons, on the other hand, is pretty much all Purdue basketball has going for it right now. How many players on the Boilermakers roster besides him can non-Purdue fans name from memory? The over/under on that is 0.5, and I’m taking the under. Purdue has some promising young talent, but Hammons is the star who has to be a stud if this team has any chance to make the NIT, let alone the NCAA tournament. He can be a 20-point, 10-rebound, four-blocks-per-game guy. He can be the most bruising, dominant beast the Big Ten has seen since Greg Oden. But he can also be a passive, foul-prone turnover machine who looks like he was dragged out of bed 10 minutes before tipoff.
Hammons got into a groove at the end of last season, when he averaged 13.8 points, 9.5 boards, and 3.8 blocks over his last four games. Purdue fans are hoping that momentum carries over into this season. Either way, Hammons won’t have a completely terrible year. You can count on him having some monster performances, and he’ll do enough to keep his name in the first round of 2015 NBA mock drafts. It’s just that these monster performances will always be the exact opposite of consistent, and that will drive Purdue fans out of their minds.
Most Intriguing New Coach: Mark Turgeon (Maryland)
G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty Images
Mark Turgeon isn’t new to Maryland, but he is new to the Big Ten, and if he doesn’t start winning more, he might be new to the unemployment line. I’m guessing most Big Ten fans watched the Terps get smacked around at Ohio State in the ACC–Big Ten Challenge last season, and they’re expecting Maryland to get stomped repeatedly now that the school has switched conferences. But Seth Allen was out with a foot injury in that game, and the Terps who closed out last season were different from the team Ohio State destroyed.
Here were Maryland’s losses in its final eight games: at ACC champion Virginia by eight; at no. 8 Duke by two (with a shot to win at the end); home versus no. 4 Syracuse by two; at Clemson by four in double overtime; and versus Florida State in the ACC tournament by two. Four days before the Florida State loss, the Terps beat Virginia, a 1-seed in last season’s tournament, at home. Maryland had no scholarship seniors or potential early NBA draft entrants on its roster and finished the season with a ton of promising performances that left me expecting the team to surprise Big Ten fans this season.
But then five players — Allen, Nick Faust, Charles Mitchell, Roddy Peters, and Shaquille Cleare — transferred in the offseason, and now there’s no telling how good Maryland will be. Dez Wells and Evan Smotrycz are back for their senior years. Jake Layman, who doesn’t bring his best in every game but has All-American talent when he’s got it going, will also return. And the Terps bring in two recruits — Melo Trimble and Dion Wiley — who should play big roles right away. Turgeon has the pieces to win some games, but the task facing him this year became much more difficult over the offseason.
Coach on the Hot Seat: Matt Painter (Purdue)
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How much longer can Robbie Hummel, JaJuan Johnson, and E’Twaun Moore save Matt Painter’s job? How much longer will those back-to-back Sweet 16s be enough to —
Wait a second. Why does this sound so familiar? Where have I heard this before? Let’s see: coach at a high-profile and basketball-crazed Indiana school who finished dead last in the Big Ten in his first year, made one big recruiting splash, went to a couple of Sweet 16s, and is now back at rock bottom. Oooohh, I know this, just give me a second to think …
Big Ten Network
There it is. Let me just go ahead and fix this real quick.
Coach on the Hot Seat: Tom Crean (Indiana)
Eric Francis/Getty Images
There we go.
It’s been a year since I was torn to shreds by Indiana fans for putting Tom Crean on the hot seat in last season’s Big Ten preview, so let’s check in with the Indianapolis Star’s Gregg Doyel to see what Crean has done to right the ship in Bloomington:
“Five players out of 13 on scholarship. All busted for one thing or another. All since February. That’s damn near half the team, and if you consider that the official police report from Saturday [November 1] says Devin Davis also had been drinking (he’s under 21) on the night he reportedly walked into traffic and was hit by Emmitt Holt, that brings the number of Hoosiers identified as drinking illegally, or drinking and driving, or failing a drug test, or some combination thereof, to six.”
Oh. Well, at least he’s winning games! What’s that? He’s not winning anymore? Even if you take away the first three years he spent rebuilding the scorched earth that Kelvin Sampson left behind, Crean is still responsible for the worst Big Ten record at Indiana in almost 30 years?
Soooo … is it safe to say his seat is hot now?
Here’s the deal with coaching the Indiana Hoosiers: Nobody expects you to be Bob Knight, but everyone expects you to care about the things Knight cared about. For all of his flaws, there were three things Knight worked hard to make synonymous with Indiana basketball: He graduated players, he followed NCAA rules, and he didn’t tolerate off-court issues. No fan base in college basketball cares about those three things more than Indiana fans. Knight made them care. Outsiders might see it as a holier-than-thou attitude or just a way for Hoosier fans to justify not winning a national title since 1987. But I assure you this is a genuine and serious matter for Indiana fans, especially those in their forties and older.
Case in point: I heard the news about Stanford Robinson and Troy Williams failing drug tests soon after the Devin Davis/Emmitt Holt incident, when my 30-year-old brother (an Indiana alum) told me and my 58-year-old dad (an Indiana alum) in a group text. My response: “Indiana is screwed if those guys have to miss a lot of games.” My dad’s response: “Crean has lost control of the program.” That’s just how older Indiana fans think. “Knight would NEVER tolerate this. He kicked his own son off the team, for god’s sake! And Crean gives these guys slaps on the wrist? This is an embarrassment.”
More than wins and losses, this is why Crean’s job at Indiana is in jeopardy. He was already getting heat from some Indiana fans (myself included), who believe he mismanaged the underachieving 2013 Hoosiers, who were the best Indiana team in 20 years. Then there was last season’s debacle. Now Crean has broken one of Bob Knight’s Three Commandments. So whether you’re an Indiana fan who cares more about good basketball or an Indiana fan who cares more about “doing things the right way,” chances are you’re not too happy with Crean these days.
One last thing: I know it’s unfair to blame Crean for young adult men who made some young adult mistakes. The coach isn’t a babysitter, and the players are responsible for their own actions. Where Crean is losing Indiana fans is in how he’s reacted to these incidents. The way he has handled things isn’t necessarily wrong; he just did the same things most other coaches would do.
But he’s coaching at Indiana, and at Indiana these transgressions are supposed to be huge deals. Crean is supposed to make it clear that he’s pissed off and won’t tolerate even the slightest hiccup from here on out. Crean is supposed to dish out punishments that seem way too harsh to outsiders. Shoot, Knight kicked three guys off the 1979 team for smoking weed once. Can you imagine how Knight would handle THIS? He’d probably forfeit the entire season.
Indiana fans want to know that the same things that matter to them also matter to their head coach. They want to know that the coach gets Indiana basketball — that he’s there because he wants to restore the glory of old IU by graduating players, following the rules, running a tight ship, and then winning some games. They don’t want a guy who is just there because Indiana is a marquee name that can help further his career. I’m not saying Crean is that kind of coach, but after this summer the public perception is migrating in that direction, which is why he’s found himself on a very real and very hot seat.
Also, he’s a terrible in-game coach who nearly turned me into an alcoholic during the last two seasons. There’s that, too.
Something to Keep an Eye On: Austin Hatch
If you’re one of the few who haven’t heard Hatch’s story, here’s the gist: He survived two plane crashes that basically left him without a family; the second crash put him in a coma for two months and nearly forced him to give up basketball; he finally got healthy, and now he’s on the Michigan roster. Every now and then, there is a story that transcends sport, fandom, rivalries, and all the other nonsense that we trick ourselves into thinking are the most important things in the world. This is one of those stories. It doesn’t matter if he never plays a meaningful minute for Michigan or if Beilein sprinkles his magical pixie dust on him and Hatch turns into the Big Ten Player of the Year. Cheer for this man. Cheer for him until you’re red in the face, and then cheer some more.
Five Pressing Questions
1. Can someone hook pedometers up to John Groce and Tom Crean when Illinois plays Indiana so we can figure out who does more pacing up and down the sideline?
2. Is this Minnesota’s best team since the Gophers’ 1997 Final Four run?
3. How many times will Fran McCaffery attempt to eat an official this season?
4. IS THIS THE YEAR THAT NORTHWESTERN FINALLY MAKES —
No, of course not.
5. Ted Valentine: Why?
This article was updated to correct the spelling of Indiana coach Tom Crean’s name.