The year it all ended

  • 03/20/2017 9:09 am in

A confidence-boosting win over Kansas in Hawaii set the year off with a bang. ESPN’s post-game interview with Tom Crean on the court turned into a celebration, his players preening and pumping their chests as they tussled his hair.

This was a confident, maybe even cocky, bunch of Hoosiers with their eyes set on big things. The stage seemed set for a special year. This team looked deep and talented, maybe even the deepest and most talented of the Crean era.

He’d found another diamond in the recruiting rough in OG Anunoby. Crean may not have landed loads of five-stars, but he could certainly coach you into one. Like Cody Zeller before him, McDonald’s All-American big man Thomas Bryant eschewed the NBA after his freshman season, instead deciding to learn more under Crean’s tutelage in his sophomore campaign. With Yogi Ferrell departed, a healthy James Blackmon Jr. seemed ready to take the big shots in the big moments — and knock them down. The team could still shoot and score with the best of them, though any drop in offense looked like it could be made up for with a defense featuring great interior size and Anunoby — hailed as one of the best defenders in the country.

Crean continued to tout a system trickled down from the NBA. He placed a high value on the 3-point shot and promoted a positionless mantra, where bigs went through guard drills and were not chained to the paint, instead free to roam the perimeter and shoot from distance. And if you played for him, he’d make you better year over year as one of the better skill developers around.

This was the Indiana Way Under Tom Crean and all seemed quite well.

A loss to Fort Wayne 11 days later was explained away with the narrative that while Indiana had the talent to beat anyone in the country, it was also a team vulnerable to the upset. Its dominant win over North Carolina at the end of November seemed to confirm that. Assembly Hall remained an intimidating place to play and the Hoosiers were on one of the longest home winning streaks in the country.

Indiana’s loss to Butler in mid-December was a sign of things to come and started to show this team wasn’t what it appeared to be. The Hoosiers lacked awareness on defense and gave up their most points per possession to date. The Bulldogs put on a clinic taking care of the ball. The Hoosiers did not. Indiana also missed all eight of its 3-point attempts in the first half in a season it regressed from an elite 3-point shooting team to one that was merely pretty good.

Its home loss to Nebraska to kick off the Big Ten season was bad. Really bad. Indiana didn’t defend and didn’t take care of the ball, a common refrain in Crean’s final year in Bloomington. But most concerning was the Hoosiers didn’t come out ready to play. They didn’t have the right mindset. It happened again against Wisconsin in its next Big Ten game and another home loss hit. After 26 straight home wins, Indiana now had back-to-back home losses in conference to start the season.

The rest of the Big Ten season didn’t bring much more hope for a strong conclusion to the season and every game seemed like a repeat. Injuries to key players didn’t help. While Indiana still played hard and didn’t give up, it could never make the plays down the stretch to pull out close games. It lacked a leader to bring them home and to steady the ship. They lost seven of eight at one point — the lone win in that stretch coming in triple overtime against Penn State … at home. Indiana’s bench starting holding up signs with reminders for players and it didn’t go over well with observers.

With its losses coming in similar fashion and Indiana’s chances at the NCAA tournament dwindling, there was a growing sense that the wagons were beginning to circle around Crean for good. But even as Indiana seemed destined for the NIT, the situation wasn’t so black and white. There were pros and cons. Crean resurrected the program from near death. He did things the right way. He won multiple Big Ten Championships and made the Sweet 16 three times. These are not easy things to do.

But there was this reality, too: Crean was about to miss the NCAA tournament for the second time in four years. He’d barely been above .500 in the league in that time (38-34). And the Sweet 16 appearances could be looked at in another way, a coach unable to make a deep tournament run for a fanbase thirsty for it, his loss to Syracuse still a sore subject for Hoosier Nation. So the winning was too inconsistent and the results too variable. Crean’s players love him. He represented the university well. He preformed random acts of kindness in the community he wanted no attention for.

But there was an adversarial nature that stewed within him. He was defensive and defiant with the media and sometimes the fans, too. He and those around him sought to control the narrative and message. A softening of his guarded energy could have helped humanize him a bit more and defuse the situation. These things didn’t matter more than the inconsistent winning. Win banner No. 6 to hang in the rafters and nobody cares. But in the total picture of the Indiana job, with all the pressures and responsibilities that come with it in a season his team struggled, they did him no favors, either.

In the end this year, Crean never lost his players, but he’d lost momentum. He hadn’t lost the belief that his system worked, but he’d lost the fans who’d grown tired of its worst parts — the laughable defense and the careless turnovers. Most importantly, he’d lost the boosters who were in Fred Glass’ ear imploring him to make a change. The noise was just too much for Glass to ignore. The tide had turned on Indiana’s coach and there was no coming back from it. Crean had to go.

Tom Crean is a very good basketball coach and whoever gets him next will be lucky to have him. Indiana, meanwhile, will move on and look for a coach that can move them up another rung in performance.

The budget, the facilities, the support and the brand is all there for someone to come in and take it to the next level. But so comes with it pressure and expectations and a hunger for more.

It’s no easy job.

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  • Arch Puddington

    Perhaps if we get a really big name guy — Donovan — there is a chance. I wouldn’t bet on it, though. When he can go to someone like Pitino, Calipari, or K, established coaches with whom he has an established relationship, it doesn’t seem likely he would choose a first year coach at a new school — especially given the diminished prospects for that program in the short term. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think of Langford as even a “hail Mary” possibility.

  • In the back of my mind, I have this notion of Mack bringing Scruggs over with him and being able to convince Romeo to come. Probably a pipe dream, but that’s all we have right now, isn’t it? Just daydreaming to go with some nightmare scenarios.

    Also, I’ll add that a kid might also see himself as able to kick that program off with a new coach. Depending on a kid’s confidence level, that could be an attractive proposition. He’d become a hero in the state, for sure.

  • Koko

    Yes I won’t forget there is a first time for everything….but in this case it would be a monumental mistake on Alford’s part.
    Take a look at his incoming recruiting class and compare it to ours, he would be a fool to leave UCLA even if he doesn’t win the championship. There has been a ton of “noise” since Crean has been fired in reference to a coach. Not just Alford.
    It won’t go away till Donovan…opps….a new coach is announced.

  • I certainly hope you’re right. Alford is my least-favorite option, by a long shot.

  • Koko

    Yes that is a possibility…but do you think the “noise” would stop if he tanks in the Sweet 16?

  • IUAZ75

    Excellent, unbiased, well written article.

  • Koko

    Me too if you haven’t already figured that out….don’t want the guy in any way shape or form.

  • IAM4IU

    Thanks for bringing the program back to respectability. We will miss your sideline intensity, total disregard for hanging on to the ball, and ability to lock down iu studs (well, kinda). May you fly away gracefully to a land where discipline is in the eye of the beholder. Walk Tall, Tom, you are one fine Pilgrim. Your day will come. Enjoy rumspringa and beet farming. Teach RJ to get his shot back. Clear the way for Romeo, sweet Romeo. Don’t let Emmitt Holt drive. Apologize to him for how he was treated. Burn what you can’t take with you. Time for a new tie and a new lie and a new coaching position. Just do you, Tommy Boy. And it will all get better. Little Tommy Crean with the goofy haircut and famous brothers — you’re gonna make it after all.

  • It wouldn’t stop completely, but there’d be even more evidence against him at that point.

  • Koko

    Yes I think Donovan would have the best chance of swaying Romeo to our team. Donovan does not drop down a notch when mentioned with the likes of Pitino, Calipari or Coach K.
    In fact, correct me if I’m wrong, Donovan is the only coach among those names that has won the tournament two years in a row.

  • IULore

    ha thats a rarity

  • Gregory J. Haggard

    I’m all for Marshall.
    I love how his team competes, and his offensive sets seem very well thought out!

  • Gregory J. Haggard

    That’s what I was thinking, I have personally experienced that!

  • Gregory J. Haggard

    Kind of like Dawknis at Duke?

  • AndyCapp

    I was going to reply to Larry that his “This might be the last chance to recover the status of an elite program” seemed a bit over-the-top and melodramatic until I read your post. I still think his was, but your post provided the perfect context as to WHY this hire is so important. And not just in the eyes of prospective coaches, but recruits who still consider IU a top 10 program. Well done.

  • AndyCapp

    Seems like a good trade to me!

  • AndyCapp

    My thinking is that maybe TC’s “It’s Indiana” mantra just did not sit well with a lot of the elite AAU kids or their coaches. I was never one of them but AAU kids seem to be all about “me first” NOT “team first”. Program loyalty runs about as deep as a kiddie pool.

  • iugradmark

    I would like to add my comment to the list of those thanking ITH for a great season of reporting that has extended to coverage on replacing our coach.

    Early in the year, when things looked a little better, ITH showed film and compiled statistics that pointed to potential issues for this year’s team. This is what good reporting is all about. It would be easy to be a cheerleader for the program and only focus on the positives but that would not be good reporting. Thank you for the work and I can’t wait to read your take on our new coach when he is announced.

  • AndyCapp

    Unless the players were drinking and smoking weed prior to going to college, something the recruiting staff should have vetted, I don’t see where this falls on the parent. The parents weren’t at school with them. At some point the ax falls on the responsible party.

  • John Prichard

    “my way or the highway”, was Knights play book.

  • PBzeer

    The end of this excellent article pretty well sums it up, though I’d leave the very off of good coach. Now we need someone who can take the next step up the ladder. Something that despite all the positives from Crean’s tenure, I don’t see him capable of here.

  • ExMeaSententia

    IU gave Crean everything he needed to be wildly successful: a large and loyal fan base; a rich tradition; the best college basketball arena in the nation; a talent-rich recruiting base; and a boat load of money.

    That he wasn’t able to leverage all that into more than a couple B1G regular season titles and 3 sweet sixteens in a nine-year tenure is the reason he’s gone.

    There are plenty of coaches out there who have done a LOT more with a lot less — yes, I’m looking at you Dayton, Xavier, Wichita State, Gonzaga, Cincinnati, Butler ……

  • ExMeaSententia

    Given the way Jon Coffman at IPFW “pantsed” Tom Crean, maybe Glass will go after him. Kidding of course, but I think there are a couple darkhorses for the job, like Collins at Northwestern, Altman at Oregon, or White at Florida.

  • Nimbi63

    One wonders if he hired an assistant coach that was a defense guru, and didn’t make statements like; “I coach the same all the time. It doesn’t matter if I’m in the first year or the tenth year of a contract.”

    It should be; “When we have the horses, we run, and when we have great shooters we work for a shot. We adapt each game to match what we face.”

    Best of luck to Coach Crean. I just wish he was more flexible with the talent at hand.

  • Jim Miller

    Coach K won back to back in 91 & 92

  • Ryan

    Completely agree; CTC was one of the least respected, if not the least respected coaches in the B1G. He will always have that team that beat UK with CWat’s buzzer beater, but too many missed opportunities in the dance, among other games and seasons as well. A typical scenario of all the coaches that came in after the General: great recruiter, not so great coach. The icing on the cake that everyone will remember CTC by is how much everyone hated the fact that he just couldn’t help himself from crowding out over the court during games. Either he’s completely insane, or just a self-centered asshat. Either way, not what the Hoosier program really wants.

  • Koko

    Thanks for that info.

  • Molon Labe

    I think it is also telling that the last Indiana Mr. Basketball to come to IU was Zeller. That is six years and counting since the best player in the state committed to come to IU. That is blasphemous.