|Tom Crean's product on the court has improved and IU's future is 'not dark anymore.' (Getty Images)|
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- His name is taboo around these parts, depending on who might be listening.
To many, Butler's baby-faced coach is the hip pick to replace Indiana's Tom Crean should he fail to get the Hoosiers back to, well, what those around these parts expect from IU basketball.
To others, he is the enemy. The guy that they never want around this part of the state because the translation would mean Crean's inability to get the program back to national relevance.
I was one of those who had Crean dead and buried. It's Year 4 and he has just eight Big Ten victories on his resume. Sure, he took over a program in shambles following the forced departure of Kelvin Sampson, but he struggled on the recruiting trail in his first couple of seasons in Bloomington -- and the product on the court appeared stagnant.
But I've come around.
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Indiana will be improved this season. No, they won't win 20 games and I'd be shocked if the Hoosiers make the NCAA tournament. They'll probably make an appearance in one of those irrelevant postseason events such as the CBI or CollegeInsider.com, maybe even the NIT.
But Crean and his staff are taking steps -- both on and off the court. Indiana should win 16 or so games, which will be enough to keep the rabid Hoosiers fans in check for another year.
That's when IU basketball should return to the national landscape, possibly even a mainstay in the Top 25.
Then everyone will forget about the potential marriage of Stevens and Indiana that many whisper about in these parts.
As long as Christian Watford doesn't do anything ridiculous, such as depart after this season for the NBA, the Hoosiers will have a chance to battle for one of the top spots in the Big Ten a year from now.
The frontline will likely look like this: Watford (senior), future NBA player Cody Zeller (sophomore) and potential all-league guy Will Sheehey (junior).
Right now, no disrespect to Jordan Hulls and Verdell Jones, Indiana's guards should be a reserve backcourt for a team contending for the Big Ten title.
The backcourt will have a different look with the arrival of Kevin "Yogi" Ferrell, arguably the top point guard in the Class of 2012. Ferrell will give Crean what he has desperately needed since he took the reins of the program -- a high-end floor leader who can put the ball in the basket and also take pressure off the rest of the team.
Ferrell is the key piece of a stellar recruiting class ranked among the nation's elite by many recruiting analysts. Athletic big man Hanner Perea will make an immediate impact and guys like Jeremy Hollowell, Peter Jurkin and Ron Patterson should help give the Hoosiers much-needed quality depth.
"We haven't been able to withstand injuries," Crean said. "And we've consistently had guys the opposition didn't have to guard."
That won't be the case a year from now.
Indiana fans are excited about the future these days -- and that's clear by the 7,700 students who have purchased season tickets, by far the most in the Crean Era.
"People have waited and been patient," Crean said. "For the most part, they've understood."
But they didn't truly understand until Nov. 11, 2010 -- a day Crean will forever remember.
The day that the youngest of the three Zeller brothers opted to spurn North Carolina and Butler in favor of IU.
"I'm an Indiana kid," Cody Zeller said last week. "And I just felt this was the best situation for me."
If Zeller didn't commit to the Hoosiers, it may all be different for Crean. He desperately yearned for a marquee recruit -- and Indiana's Mr. Basketball more than filled that role.
"No question," Crean said of the impact Zeller's commitment brought to Bloomington. "He was the most important recruit we've gotten."
Now, even with the season-ending injury to Maurice Creek, the Hoosiers should have enough with Watford, Zeller, Sheehey and their experienced backcourt to compete against much of the Big Ten. There's no shot they are winning the league, but they could finish somewhere in the top half -- if everything falls into place.
"The talent is definitely there now," Hulls said.
It's still not where Indiana fans want, no, ,expect, it to be. But it's moving in the right direction.
Along with the heralded recruiting class that will arrive next year, Indiana has also locked up a few talented young kids. Trey Lyles is considered an elite, Top 10'ish player in the Class of 2014 and James Blackmon is also a Top 100 guy.
"We've got the state back," said Crean, who isn't allowed to comment on unsigned recruits such as Lyles or Blackmon. "And I think fans can really see the future now. It's not dark anymore."
And may not include that guy down the road, the one who has made a couple of national championship game appearances.