The Big Ten basketball season is winding down, and with one game left to play for most teams we have a regular season champion. Conference play has also provided those of us in the media a really difficult choice for Big Ten Coach of the Year honors.
Usually this honor sorts itself out pretty easily, but in the 2015-16 season there were two big surprises. Those surprises were the Indiana Hoosiers taking the regular season championship and the rise of the once-dead Wisconsin Badgers.
With the play of their teams, head coaches Tom Crean (Indiana) and Greg Gard (Wisconsin) have each made a serious case to be named B1G Coach of the Year. So, who should the award really go to?
Let’s break down the cases for and against each man, shall we?
The Case For Tom Crean
A 10-3 start to the season has turned in to a Big Ten championship-winning team, something that has only been done one other time under Crean. If winning a regular season title with two games to go isn’t a model of consistency, then what else is?
There was no choke-job, no head-scratching losses. What there was was a team who fought through injuries and adversity from the offseason on to become a true champion. Crean deserves a ton of credit for figuring out the formula that works early and sticking with it even with a guy like James Blackmon Jr. gone after non-conference play was finished.
Yogi Ferrell finally put it all together in his final campaign, while the team had four double-digit scorers and three of them playing all season long. It was a true team effort in 2015-16, unlike anything we’ve seen from the promising Hoosiers of the past.
Voting for the coach of the Big Ten regular season champions seems like a pretty solid bet.
The Case Against Tom Crean
Is it really that surprising to see the Hoosiers at the top of the Big Ten standings? After all, they did have stars like Yogi Ferrell, James Blackmon, Jr. and Troy Williams to work with. Even BTN analyst Jon Crispin had them No. 2 in his preseason poll.
The unofficial BTN poll also had the Hoosiers 2nd too. Going 10-3 in non-conference play also proved to be a pretty good indicator this was a team ready to compete for a Big Ten championship. It isn’t like this was an improbable run or something so impressive that Crean is a no-brainer choice.
The Case For Greg Gard
Taking over for an iconic figure midway through a season? Could you ask for anything tougher for an interim head coach with exactly zero head coaching experience at the collegiate level? In the case of Greg Gard you actually could, as the Badgers that he took over faced the very real possibility of being the first team coached by Bo Ryan to not make the NCAA tournament.
Instead of folding and keeping with the status quo, Gard took full control of this team and molded it in the image he believed would make them successful.
After taking over a team that was just 8-5 in non-conference play, Gard’s team went out to a 1-4 start to Big Ten play. That start featured losses to the likes of Purdue, Indiana and Maryland — hardly slouches in conference play.
Still, this team worked and figured out how to work the swing offense quickly. Once the lightbulb went on with their collective backs against the wall, Wisconsin has ripped off 11 wins in the last 12 games and own three wins over Top 10 teams.
Getting little-used point guard Jordan Hill to be a key contributor off the bench and Vitto Brown to become a three-point threat were things few saw coming — but they all happened.
No team in the Big Ten is as hot as the Badgers are, and no team is a bigger surprised based on early season results than UW. A lot of the credit for the turnaround has to go to Gard and his coaching.
The Case Against Greg Gard
While there is a happy feeling to what Gard has accomplished, there is a really bad loss on their record in Big Ten play — at Northwestern. It’s a blemish that Tom Crean and the Hoosiers simply don’t have on their record this season.
Additionally, Wisconsin’s 1-4 start in Big Ten play also coincided with the start of Gard’s tenure. Feel-good story aside, the totality of Gard’s Big Ten season is not nearly as impressive as the mark Crean’s Hoosiers have put up.
There’s also a consistently maddening feature to the 2015-16 Badgers…an ability to find an extended scoring drought in each half of just about every contest this season. Product of youth? Maybe. But also something that should’ve been figured out by now.
Wisconsin and Gard may be lucky it hasn’t suffered further losses given its inconsistency on the offensive end of the floor.
After all of that, voting for this award in this year is perhaps the most subjective in recent memory. Do you value a mild surprise and winning the conference title, or do you value doing what no one thought was possible?
If you love a feel-good story, you’d be totally justified in voting for Gard. If you value championships and quality play over the whole of the season, then Crean is your man.
Ultimately, this writer prefers to wait and see what happens on the final day of the regular season. Should the Badgers upend Purdue on the road to end the season, they will finish as the No. 2 seed and won 12 of their last 13 games to end regular season play. That’s consistency, and that would also mean four wins against Top 15 opposition in conference play.
How could you not vote for that kind of production from a team who was left for dead at 1-4 in B1G play early in January?
Should Wisconsin not win on Saturday at Purdue…well, the choice becomes much clearer and Tom Crean becomes the choice. This is a rare season in which the choice isn’t wrong no matter which way it goes.
Perhaps the bigger question is if we see a split vote like last season with Maryland’s Mark Turgeon winning the media vote and Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan winning the coaches vote.