Why Tom Crean Should Be On the Hot Seat

When does it become acceptable to say, enough is enough? At what point does the athletic department say, this just isn’t going to work out, this team and this system doesn’t have championship potential? If these questions aren’t being asked in the Indiana University war room, somebody needs to start.

Tom Crean’s saga in Indiana has been something of a roller coaster. We pulled him from Marquette after he built a consistent program in Milwaukee, including a Final Four team that boasted future Hall of Famer and three-time NBA champion Dwyane Wade. So looking in the rear-view, signing Tom Crean was great.  A proven coach with a lot of upside.

But that was 2008. Six years have gone by, and the Indiana basketball program rose and fell like a colonial empire. Even though the 2013 team that earned a no. 1 rank in the AP Poll for the first time in 20 years, won the Big Ten outright in the regular season, and held a no. 1 seed in March Madness couldn’t escape the Sweet Sixteen. In the year that followed the team finished 17-15, and was left to watch all postseason play from home.

I contended then and I contend now, that any other coach in that tournament, could have won with that Indiana roster. A roster so well balanced, and so deep, not to mention the presence of two future lottery picks. They had a great young facilitating point guard in Yogi Ferrell, not a phenomenal shooter but someone who could create for others and get to the rim and charity stripe with ease; Jordan Hulls served as a perfect running mate, spacing the defense with his deep range and ability to penetrate and dish; Victor Oladipo at the college level, was capable of guarding every team’s best player with lockdown precision, and providing steady offense on the other end as a slasher and in transition; Fan favorite Christian Watford was the perfect stretch four, one who could collect on the boards with his length, with a sweet stroke to match; Cody Zeller was the most polished big man in college basketball that year, you knew what you were getting night in and night out, his athleticism was subpar but what he lacked in speed and agility he made up for with footwork and instincts.

They put up 44 points in that Sweet Sixteen loss to Syracuse, despite having four career 1,000 point scorers on the team (all but freshman Ferrell), not to mention Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year Will Sheehey and Remy Abell off the bench. But even that wasn’t enough for the fabled 2-3 zone that Jim Boeheim and Syracuse hold so dear.

I find that information troubling. The way you beat a 2-3 zone, is to play inside out basketball by forcing the defense to collapse in the post and kicking out to the open men on the wings and let them shoot over the top of it. That team was perfectly built to do exactly that.

My favorite double standard in sports, is the one that gives credit to the coach when a team overachieves, but fails to provide the blame when they underachieve. An example would be the NBA’s Tom Thibodeau. After Derrick Rose went down for the year, he turned the Bulls into the league’s best defense behind DPOY Joakim Noah, kept them in the playoff hunt and gained much respect around the league. That respect is well deserved, but what is to be said about a guy like Scott Brooks, who couldn’t win with Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Russell Westbrook and James Harden? Where do you point the finger there?

But that’s okay. Perhaps I’m being too harsh on Crean. It was his first good year after five years of rebuilding and they were truly great, but their success was short lived when Zeller and Oladipo left early for the draft, following the graduated Watford and Hulls out of Bloomington. So where does that leave you? Another rebuild?

There are three things  that come to mind when I envision my laboratory product, perfect specimen college basketball coach: Recruiting, Player Development, and Game Management. I can not deny Crean’s eye for talent. He has recruited some special players including a handful of diamonds in the rough, guys who were overlooked by the major conferences until Crean came along. He found Oladipo, he sold Dywane Wade on Marquette, and he convinced Cody Zeller to be the first in his family to play for the home team (Tyler played at North Carolina; Luke at Notre Dame). He kept Eric Gordon in Indiana, brought homegrown “Mr.Basketball” Hulls and lottery pick Noah Vonleh as well.

Those are accolades worth bragging about, the kind that are hard to deny and warrant the saying, “give credit where credit is due”. What Crean struggles to do, is develop these players. Zeller showed up on campus incredibly sound fundamentally, he was polished from the get go.  What stands out is the lack of growth from freshman to sophomore year. Oladipo is a self made gym rat. We’re talking about a guy who only saw the court in high school as a defensive specialist, and worked his tail off in the gym to become the freak athlete he is. Oladipo has an incredible work ethic, a strong family value instilled at a young age by his Nigerian-immigrant parents.

I don’t give Crean the full credit for their growth, I probably don’t even give him half. He wasn’t running plays to get these guys the ball in Bloomington, which is why Zeller was also the first in his family to NOT use all four years of eligibility. Don’t be fooled by their draft selections (Oladipo at no. 2, Zeller at no. 4), the league drafts on potential and these guys certainly had that.

The next fall rolled around and Noah Vonleh was on campus, the heir apparent to Zeller’s broken throne. A stretch four with mobility, standout finesse, a vast array of post moves and the strength to use them at will. He went on to become the Big Ten’s leading rebounder, and the reports had it in stone that should Vonleh return as a sophomore he had top three potential in the 2015 draft.

Instead, he opted to walk, and got selected ninth overall by the Charlotte Hornets where he will fight Zeller for the starting role. Vonleh’s decision to leave early was further perpetuated by the realization Crean struggles to create an offense that highlights its biggest assets. Vonleh was a sure thing on the block, flashing the post on every play waiting for someone to feed him. Instead, he saw limited touches in a half court offense that focused too heavily on time-consuming dribble handoffs that fail to create open space. That’s why no one in Bloomington was surprised when Vonleh spurned the opportunity to return, knowing that he could’ve been an even higher pick next year, but if you were him, why would you subject yourself to that?

Not only do I fail to credit Tom Crean with the development of the elite products of his program, I blame him for the failure to develop the role players within. Peter Jurkin, Jeremy Hollowell, Austin Etherington, Luke Fischer, Johnny Marlin, Remy Abell, Maurice Creek are all guys who transferred after their sophomore or junior year after failing to develop into the players they were expected to become.  That’s a disturbingly high number of guys leaving in such a short period of time. Of the guys who stayed, Hanner Mosquera-Perea saw limited minutes and got a DUI early in the season, and the only ones left to talk about are Jeff Howard and Collin Hartman, guys who barely cracked the rotation. If your blame compass was pointing at magnetic north, it would be leading you to Tom Crean’s front door.

As far as game management goes, he shows flashes (very slight, but they are there) of brilliance, but there are too many questionable decisions and a failure to produce a consistent offense that shows steady repetition from game to game. The half court offense is almost non existent, like I previously stated, it’s comprised mostly of dribble handoffs and the occasional inside pass. More often than not, it resulted in a contested shot trying to avoid a shot clock violation. Very little off ball screens, not enough motion around the perimeter, and quite frankly not enough strategic planning. Vonleh was the go to, the center of balance, and he only managed to put up 11. 3 points per game, while leading the Big Ten in rebounds per game in just 26.5 minutes per game. For one thing, in a 40 minute game, don’t you think he should be getting more playing time? I know I do. I was so high on Vonleh I thought every single play should have been run through him. He’s 6’10, 240-lb of muscle with great footwork, a solid midrange shot, and passes well out of the post. He could have opened up so much more space for Yogi Ferrell and co. but he never got the chance to fully shine.

I am well aware that Indiana suffered a drastic fall from grace in the wake of the Kelvin Sampson scandal, but that taint on Indiana’s historical reputation is far removed, and the Hoosiers have returned themselves to the blue blood program that rings synonymous with classic college basketball. But are they built to win? Maybe. Is Tom Crean the coach to do that? I don’t think so. After seven years, I don’t think the Hoosiers should willingly subject themselves through another rebuild. They went from being a number one seed in March Madness, to not even making the NIT in consecutive seasons. That is a catastrophic drop off in production, the kind that shouldn’t be expected or accepted from a program with such a rich history that it boasts five NCAA championships in a state where basketball is just short of a religion.

If Tom Crean wasn’t on the hot seat last year, he definitely should be now. Patience is a virtue, but time is running out and his reputation is fading. Indiana has a fan base that will bite your head off after every loss just as they will celebrate too hard for every win. It’s a passionate group in Assembly Hall, and they are not easy to please. This kind of performance won’t and shouldn’t be tolerated much longer. As each year passes, Tom Crean’s buyout becomes more financially pragmatic, so if this year plays out similarly to last year’s, athletics director Fred Glass will have a tough time justifying keeping this guy around.

** Worthy of mention: ESPN left Crean on the outside looking in at their top 50 college basketball coaches. **

Do you think Indiana is a program worthy of a top 50 coach? I certainly do.

Isaiah Austin Diagnosed with Marfan Syndrome
Isaiah Austin Diagnosed with Marfan Syndrome