Let’s start with a self-evident truth: For John Calipari, beating Indiana would be a good thing.
There is a special place waiting in Kentucky basketball lore for the first UK coach who joins Adolph Rupp in winning multiple NCAA championships for the Wildcats.
If Calipari and No. 4 seed Kentucky beat No. 5 Indiana on Saturday in the NCAA Tournament round of 32, it keeps that aspiration alive for 2016.
Yet should UK (27-8) fall to IU (26-7) in the Wells Fargo Arena, Calipari still has four Final Four trips in the prior five years stored in the First National Bank of Big Blue Nation.
For Tom Crean, Saturday’s stakes are so much higher. This season’s unexpected Big Ten regular-season championship has removed, for now, Crean’s name from the list of coaches occupying hot seats.
Beating Kentucky — a program loathed by IU fans — in an NCAA Tournament contest could do something much more for the Hoosiers’ coach: It could unify the Indiana fan base behind the 49-year-old Crean in a way it never really has been before.
“They haven’t done anything special in the NCAA Tournament since he’s been here,” says Bob Kravitz, the former Indianapolis Star sports columnist who now writes for the television station WTHR’s website. “(Beating Kentucky), I think that would, maybe, change the narrative on Tom Crean. Not only getting to the Sweet 16, but doing it over hated Kentucky.”
A certain element of the Indiana fan base seemingly will never accept any coach not named Robert Montgomery Knight.
Other IU backers appear not to have forgiven Crean for a dispiriting 61-50 loss as a No. 1 seed to No. 4 Syracuse in the 2013 NCAA tourney round of 16 in which a talented Indiana team (think Cody Zeller, Victor Oladipo) was completely flummoxed by a 2-3 zone.
After shepherding IU through the lean years that followed the Kelvin Sampson NCAA probation, Crean has led Indiana to the NCAA Tournament four times in the past five seasons.
However, of the Hoosiers’ five NCAA Tournament victories under Crean, only a 2013 win over No. 9 Temple is over a foe with a single-digit seed.
Beating No. 4 seed Kentucky — an underseeded No. 4, at that — would be the signature NCAA tourney win Crean lacks as Indiana head man.
“There’s a certain group (of IU fans) that would only be happy with a Final Four or better,” says Mike Pegram, owner and publisher of Peegs.com, an IU sports website on the Rivals network. “Many of them are older fans who witnessed so many (tournament) runs and those three NCAA titles under Coach Knight. But (beating UK) would be a step to unifying.”
This season is likely the best one-season coaching job Crean has done in his eight years at Indiana. The Hoosiers were not a good team early, losing to eventual mediocrities Wake Forest and UNLV in Maui and getting run out of Cameron Indoor Stadium by Duke.
If that weren’t enough adversity, Indiana sophomore star James Blackmon Jr. was lost for the season Jan. 5 due to a knee injury.
A restive fan base was braying for Crean’s scalp.
Amidst the noise, Crean performed one of the more difficult tasks in big-time college coaching (what in Kentucky is referred to as “the Rich Brooks”): He kept his team’s belief at a time when loud external voices wanted the coach out.
“We stayed within our walls, we tightened our circle a little bit,” said Indiana junior forward Collin Hartman. “We could have gone one of two directions: Either crashed, or rose above. I think we came together and we rose above.”
Indiana star senior point guard Yogi Ferrell says Crean “has always been an energetic, positive coach. But the way he stuck with us and the way we’ve gone through adversity, I’m proud of him for not giving up on us.”
In spite of how it may have appeared from the outside early this season, Crean says 2015-16 was not difficult for him.
“I’ve learned so much about what matters, what doesn’t, and to stay in control of what you can control,” he said.
It would be hard to overestimate how much Indiana fans yearn to see their program again stand eye to eye with UK. In the last 22 meetings between Cats and Hoosiers, IU is 5-17.
In the Indiana view, Christian Watford’s famous buzzer beater that felled UK in Bloomington in the 2011-12 regular season represented IU returning to Kentucky’s level — only for UK to pull the plug on the long-running rivalry.
“It’s just like (Indianapolis) Colts fans hate New England more than New England (Patriots) fans hate the Colts,” Kravitz, the Indianapolis sportswriter, said. “Well, New England always beats them. The lesser of the two teams usually has a greater hatred toward the team that’s beating their brains in.”
For Tom Crean, leading Indiana past Kentucky on Saturday on the biggest stage in college basketball would finally send his poll numbers in the Hoosier Nation as high as they can go.