Tom Crean’s phone buzzed shortly after his team’s crucial win.
He’d received a text message from San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh, his brother-in-law, following Indiana’s 86-75 victory at North Carolina State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge last week. The Hoosiers were down 63-56 in the second half of that game.
“It said, ‘You guys had execution with an edge,’” Crean recalled during a weekend conversation with ESPN.com.
Few offered similar kudos last season when injuries riddled the program and the Hoosiers finished with a 3-15 record in Big Ten play.
But health, experience and the addition of a 6-11 big man with a familiar last name have helped the Hoosiers begin the 2011-12 campaign with an 8-0 record, a tally that suggests a major turnaround is in the works. Six of Crean’s players are averaging 9.0 or more points this season, a tribute to Indiana’s balance.
“I know our team feels good about it,” Crean said. “Last year, we had some great wars but we could never capture momentum.”
Few expect the Hoosiers to defeat No. 1 Kentucky Saturday, but they’re not facing the “when pigs fly” odds of recent matchups with the Wildcats.
It’s essentially the same team from last year with one major exception: freshman Cody Zeller, the brother of North Carolina’s Tyler Zeller, has changed the program’s interior attack. He’s averaging 15.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.6 blocks for Indiana in his first year.
“Cody, I think about how good he is defensively,” Crean said. “He gets a lot of things done. He has been so well-taught.”
In 2008, Crean accepted the task of revamping an Indiana program that needed a demolition before he could start the rebuilding process. Kelvin Sampson’s tenure ended in scandal. Defections, NCAA sanctions and scholarship losses put Crean at a perennial disadvantage. But he maintained the foresight necessary to overhaul the program and position it for future success.
And that’s the message Crean has sold to Indiana’s supporters. Today, they can see the progress he’s projected throughout his time with the program.
“We thought we would be better,” Crean said. “The key is the development of the other guys in the program, young and old.”
But Crean is not content. And that’s not uncommon.
He wants “40-minute” rebounding on both sides of the ball and better penetration. And his team’s 13.0 turnovers per game bother him, too.
He said he wished he would have pushed his team to “put the throttle down” during a 94-73 win at Evansville earlier this season just to see how it would have responded.
“There’s a lot of room for improvement,” he said. “There are so many things we can get better at.”
That’s a typical coach’s perspective.
But whenever Crean doubts his team’s obvious upgrade from last season, he just has to pick up his phone.