Tom Crean and Buzz Williams were part of the same coaching staff at this time last season. They pored over game plans together, traveled with one another on recruiting trips and ultimately led Marquette to its third consecutive NCAA tournament appearance.
But the two former colleagues couldn't be facing more different scenarios heading into the 2008-09 season.
Crean left a cushy situation at Marquette – the Golden Eagles return four starters – to take over an Indiana program reeling from a recruiting scandal that forced previous coach Kelvin Sampson to resign in midseason.
The Hoosiers are not only on probation but also are virtually starting over from scratch. Senior forward Kyle Taber, who averaged 1.3 points per game last season, is the only returning scholarship player. Crean and his staff scrambled to put together a seven-man recruiting class that includes five true freshmen, but they aren't the caliber of prospects that one of the most prestigious programs in college basketball is used to attracting. None was ranked among the top 100.
Williams, the surprising choice to replace Crean at Marquette, inherits a veteran-laden team with three senior guards – Dominic James, Jerel McNeal and Wesley Matthews – who are entering their fourth season as starters.
It all begs the question: Whose shoes would you rather be in, Crean's or Williams'?
SKWARA'S PICK: Buzz Williams
Williams is in a bit of a no-win situation. If the Golden Eagles get to the NCAA tournament, he still won't get much of the credit. Crean put this team together and he's the guy who taught these players what it takes to reach the field of 65 – or at least it will be viewed that way.
If the Golden Eagles fall short of an NCAA bid, Williams will be viewed as the No. 1 reason as to what went wrong.
Still, I'd rather be sitting behind Williams' desk right now than Crean's. That's largely because a below-average coach could steer the Eagles into the NCAA tournament. There isn't a coach in the Big East who wouldn't trade three of his guards for James, McNeal and Matthews. Junior small forward Lazar Hayward, who averaged 12.8 points and 6.5 rebounds last season, gives opponents another scorer to worry about. The Eagles have a good chance to have a special season, and Williams doesn't have to make any big adjustments or risky moves to make it happen. A run all the way to the Final Four is even possible. You can't turn down a chance to be a part of that.
It's true Crean doesn't face much pressure, and I'm sure that must feel nice after years of grinding out tough wins at Marquette. But any coach who takes his work seriously will tell you he would trade a job with almost no pressure and expectations for one with plenty of both.
MCCLELLAN'S PICK: Tom Crean
It's not going to be a pretty season in Bloomington, and I'm not talking about winter.
The Hoosiers are going to lose. A lot. But fortunately for Crean, that's the expectation. It isn't going to surprise anyone if Indiana goes 8-22.
In a way that's kind of the beauty of the situation if you're a coach. Sure, you'd rather have enough talent to compete for an NCAA tournament bid, but the Hoosiers don't. The pressure is on everyone who plays them for a change. There is ZERO pressure on IU. Every Big Ten win will be considered nearly heroic in Bloomington. Win 10 or more and the school will put a banner in Assembly Hall.
Hoosiers fans aren't used to rooting for the underdog (unless you count the handful that cross over and root for IU football as well), so they will embrace this bunch with a Cream and Crimson passion. This is one time a fan base can make a huge difference, and there will be times they will cheer Crean's young charges to victory.
Do you really think Penn State and Northwestern can hold up with experts saying they're supposed to beat Indiana? Only if you expect paper airplanes to make it through hailstorms.
I think Crean is going to love this season. He's going to talk up his opponents like Lou Holtz on steroids (I know, scary thought!). He'll have IU fans believing his players are nothing short of courageous for even stepping on the court against the likes of Purdue, Michigan State and Wisconsin.
Meanwhile, Buzz Williams has all of the pressure at Marquette. The Golden Eagles were a hair's breadth from the Sweet 16 last year, and all of the key players are back. If they don't go at least as far the finger will be pointed at one guy, and we all know who that is.