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Yes, it bugs Tom Crean. He knows how close his Indiana Hoosiers came to basketball success last season. A few more three-pointers, a few less turnovers, a couple more stops and it could have been a season to celebrate instead of inflame, and the veteran coach burns with frustration and resolve.
Next season must be better. There can't be a repeat of the 17-15, no-postseason mess. While nothing is ever guaranteed, off-season signs point to a major rebound, and it starts with one key theme:
Crean pushes this mantra relentlessly. He has eight new players, one new assistant coach, a different approach (small ball is in, dominant post play is out), but the same try-to-out-work-everybody-else drive. He understands IU's championship-rich tradition, and in these parity driven times, when every game attains must-win status, little things are everything.
“For every possession to matter in a game, you've got to get them to understand that every workout, every part of that workout, every part of the weight lifting, every part of the conditioning, everything matters,” Crean says. “That's the best way to build a true maturity and a true collective toughness in your team. That's what we're building toward.”
IU figures to play five guards sometimes this season. Crean calls it “unconventional” and he's ready to use unconventional methods to make it work. He says he's studied the way teams play in Europe and in the NBA; he's looked at what national champ Connecticut did with its guard-heavy attack and how Villanova has thrived with its guard-dominated lineup. It's all about pushing the pace, spacing the floor, hitting open perimeter shots and -- this can't be overstated -- limiting turnovers.
“I always take my computer with me when we travel and load it up with new things to see.”
IU lost players through graduation, the NBA draft and transfer. It added a bunch of shooters, led by freshmen James Blackmon and Robert Johnson.
“Potentially we are going to have addition by subtraction,” Crean says. “That's just part of it.”
Another part is the Hoosiers' dramatic strength increase. Junior guard Yogi Ferrell bench presses 245 pounds. Sophomore forward Devin Davis is the strongest Hoosier with a 285-pound bench press. Troy Williams arrived basically only able to bench press the 45-pound bar. Now he's at 225. Blackmon could only bench press 185 pounds once a year ago. Now he does it “nine or 10 times.” Crean says Johnson arrived as, “The strongest player flat out that we have ever brought into Indiana in the summer time irregardless of position.”
Johnson could bench press 185 pounds 13 times when he arrived last month, and is much better now.
What does a bench press have to do with basketball? It's a barometer to help show the Hoosiers are better equipped to handle Big Ten physicality.
Of course, we'll only really know once the season starts and see who pushes whom around.
Crean sees NBA potential in junior forward Hanner Perea if he can consistently harness his athletic skills. He sees maturity coming to sophomore guard Stanford Robinson, saying, “Frankly, there have not been nearly as many early mornings for punishment reasons, which is a huge thing for Stan.We need a mature, leading Stan.”
Crean calls all of this, “a sign of things to come,” recognizing that off-season success doesn't guarantee in-season victories, but it does give you a chance.
Youth contributed to last season's never-ending breakdowns that caused a 2-5 record in one-possession games. Confusion surfaced under pressure and the Hoosiers were too inexperienced to handle it. There were times, Crean says, when three Hoosiers were playing zone defense and two were playing man.
That can't happen again.
Crean wants a team so in tune defensively with what's going on that breakdowns come from the other team.
“We have to have a team of stoppers.”
In an effort to build depth and consistency last season, Crean tried multiple lineups. It didn't always work, and IU fans let him know in normally Hoosier happy Assembly Hall.
“I put certain things last year, I would have booed me, too," he says. "I really would. Because we were trying to get guys in and we were trying to find some type of consistency on the court and we didn't have enough of it.”
There is the perception that last year's players didn't like each other, and that contributed to the on and off-court issues. Not true, Crean says.
“It wasn't like that at all. If anything they liked each other too much. They didn't pull each other out of situations they didn't need to be in.”
That included the arrests of Ferrell, Robinson and Perea. Discipline was swift, and they included grueling early morning workouts, and community service. The goal was and is to make sure such incidents never happen again.
“There's a difference between punishment and discipline,” Crean says. “I think guys are growing. There were mornings when guys were getting up (and working hard). Some mornings they were going over to see cancer patients at the hospital, because they need to understand, that's a whole other world out there and the gift you've been given.
“When you play basketball at Indiana, it's a whole different deal, and there's a level of scrutiny that goes there. And they have got to understand that. I think we are growing there. But something could happen tonight. That's the thing.
“There's no soapbox. You deal with it as it comes and you try to help people understand that there are responsibilities that you have. There's going to be consequences to your actions. It's what it's like to go here and the responsibility that you're under and the mistakes you can't make. I don't act like that's not going to happen again. It's not realistic. You just deal with it as you go and try to help people grow.”
And if the Hoosiers grow into their potential, if they run and space and defend and -- have you heard this before? -- limit the turnovers, all things all possible.
In other words, everything matters.