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McGRATH: Tom Crean has turned Indiana around the right way

Indianhead coach Tom Crean tries will comeback from Hoosiers final minutes WisconsBadger's 68-56 wover IndianHoosiers semi-final game Big ten Tournament

Indiana head coach Tom Crean tries to will a comeback from the Hoosiers in the final minutes of the Wisconsin Badger's 68-56 win over the Indiana Hoosiers in a semi-final game of the Big ten Tournament March 16, 2013 at the United Center. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: April 18, 2013 7:13AM

Rank had its privileges in a previous job, so there I was on the island of Maui in November 2008, covering the Maui Invitational basketball tournament.

Tough duty, sure. But somebody had to do it.

Notre Dame was on hand for a local angle. Texas post-Kevin Durant had a roster full of pro-level talent, and the North Carolina Hansbroughs looked to be a beast of a team that season.

Indiana also was there, lurking as far below the radar as a storied five-time national champion possibly could.

Tom Crean was seven months into the job as Indiana’s coach, hired away from Marquette after Kelvin Sampson was dismissed for desecrating the Temple of Knight by playing fast and loose with NCAA rules. Crean had taken a jackhammer to Sampson’s roster, intent on obliterating a culture of permissiveness. Among those sent packing: Jordan Crawford, a light-it-up scorer who became a first-round NBA draft pick in the year he played at Xavier after transferring.

Didn’t matter. Crean was going to do things his way and not cut corners, even if the motley crew he took the floor with that season would have been pressed to win a decent IU intramural league. Maui was a precursor … and a reminder that it could have been worse.

The Hoosiers were in Maui when the NCAA announced its sanctions for the sins of Sampson. A proactive stance in dismissing the culpable coaches, cleansing the roster and voluntarily forfeiting one scholarship made a case for leniency, as did a history of law-abiding citizenship in the Knight Era. Three years probation was the sentence; pretty light compared with the whacks USC and Penn State have taken in more recent years.

Crean swallowed hard, took his medicine and got to work on reconstruction. The progress was arduously slow at first, and some who viewed national-championship contention as an IU birthright expected a quicker fix. But look at him now. Top 10 team all season. Big Ten regular-season champion. Possible No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Too bad he can’t beat Bo Ryan.

Wisconsin made it 10 straight wins over Crean’s Hoosiers with a 68-56 dusting in Saturday’s Big Ten tournament semifinal at the United Center. The loss probably won’t affect IU’s NCAA tournament stock much, but it had to sting some; Crean and Ryan are longtime rivals from the recruiting wars and not particularly fond of each other.

Crean doesn’t do easy. He does intense. And it’s not a trait acquired from his football brothers-in-law, the uber-competitive Harbaughs. Crean was a head coach before either brother and has always functioned at a pace that suggests the house pets might want to look busy when he enters a room.

He’s five years gone from Marquette, but resentment lingers over an awkward departure — his players and his bosses learned of it from news reports, after the deal was done. Crean would probably handle that move with more grace if given the chance, but a school with Indiana’s hoops pedigree can dictate terms of a hiring process, and he was playing on IU’s court once he agreed to be interviewed.

The Milwaukee angst is overdone. Crean gave Marquette nine years and left the program in better shape than he found it, including a seamless (if temporary) transition to the Big East and the only Final Four appearance since the Al McGuire era.

That run, in 2003, made Crean restless. He’d had a glimpse of the mountaintop, but he wasn’t getting there unless another Dwyane Wade walked through the door, and there’s a better chance of that happening in Bloomington.

It hasn’t yet, but Christian Watford and Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller and Yogi Ferrell give the Hoosiers enough talent to evoke national aspirations. They stand out in the mosh-pit Big Ten by averaging 80 points a game and playing real basketball when many of their opponents are content to mud wrestle. That’s one reason to pull for them.

Crean? Depends on your perspective. He gained no friends by dressing down a Big Ten functionary over the conference’s player-of-the-week selection process, and by berating a Michigan assistant who had been on Sampson’s staff (and cleared of any wrongdoing) following IU’s Big Ten title-clinching victory. But that’s who he is.

A coach who speaks his mind and isn’t afraid of the consequences is bound to ruffle feathers at a time when “We just play them one game at a time” passes as a provocative statement.

Results over diplomacy isn’t always pretty, or ideal. But it has a long history at Indiana.

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