by Kent Sterling
The truth always lies in the middle someplace, and as the chief potentate of Indiana Basketball Tom Crean isn’t as bad a coach as his critics believe nor as good as his ardent supporters assert.
This morning the critics voices are loudly decrying last night’s miserable collapse in Bloomington at the hands of Big Ten cellar dwelling Penn State (at least the Nittany Lions were in the basement before last night’s game).
How bad a collapse was it? The Hoosiers led by 11 points until D.J. Newbill hit a three-pointer with 2:25 left, and took a nine-point lead with 2:09 left on an Evan Gordon free throw. From that point forward, Indiana scored zero points on two field goal attempts, four turnovers, and no free throw attempts.
I can’t remember watching a game – ever at any level – where a team lost a lead as Indiana did without missing foul shots. For Penn State to erase a nine-point deficit in two minutes without fouling is incredible. Indiana made a series of boneheaded plays that have reaffirmed the cases made by many Hoosiers fans who have never bought what Crean has sold.
Two backcourt violations, three turnovers on inbounds plays (including a critical five-second call on Jeremy Hollowell with 2:06 left), and a silly foul by Stanford Robinson also with 2:06 left have caused fans to look to Crean as not only the reason for that loss but for what they perceive to be the underachievement of the last two Indiana teams. Never mind the first outright Big Ten Championship in 20 years, bad games against eventual champion Kentucky and Final Four qualifier Syracuse in the Sweet Sixteen, fans wanted a championship out of Cody Zeller, Victor Oladipo, Jordan Hulls, and Christian Watford.
They didn’t get one, so the wolves are howling.
Because I’m not joining the loudening chorus of those who would like to see Indiana move in another direction with a new leader, I’m now seen as a Tom Crean apologist.
That’s a baffling development I didn’t see coming. I’m no one’s champion, and I’m sure as hell no one’s lap dog.
A championship or bust mentality is the way Kentucky has turned into what it has become. Maybe I’ve grown soft as I’ve grown up, by I don’t demand the poleaxing of a coach after every negative result.
The negatives are mounting, and the intellectual development of players seems to have stagnated, but the positives are still profound. The players graduate, none have been in trouble for quite awhile, they have beaten two top ten teams in the last month, and despite losing 70% of their scoring from last year have been competitive as the freshmen physically matured.
There are holes in the performance of the team and in the recruiting of Indiana kids, but overall the work that Crean has done in Bloomington for the nearly six years he has been there has been quite good. Would it have been great to get Gary Harris and Trey Lyles? With Harris, there is no doubt he would have been force for good on many levels as a representative of Indiana University. With Lyles, who decommitted from IU and will attend Kentucky, who knows. We’ll see.
If Noah Vonleh leaves for the NBA, that will be three lottery picks in two years for Indiana, which shows that Crean and his staff are recruiting and developing players at a high level. The flip side is that if Vonleh leaves, who is going to man the front gout for Indiana – Hanner Mosquiera-Perea and Peter Jurkin? Great question.
Indiana’s Academic Progress Rate was a perfect 1,000 for the 2009-2012 period. That is the demand from fans and the administration, and Crean has implemented a culture where kids perform in the classroom. That is the least that should happen for the players, whose only compensation continues to be their education.
Would a sixth championship banner look nice in Assembly Hall? Absolutely. Was last night a miserable train wreck of a loss that can’t be explained without pointing a finger at Crean and every single player on the floor over the last 2:30? You bet. A disappointing berth in the NIT is almost a given, which is a significant step back.
But before we turn as red in the face as the non-white stripes on our warm-ups, take a step back and evaluate Crean’s entire body of work. Just as important, think about who athletic director Fred Glass could get to come down to Bloomington to run things if Crean was told to clean out his office. Brad Stevens is making big money coaching the Boston Celtics. Who’s next on your list – Shaka Smart? Gregg Marshall?
Yes, Indiana is 14-10 with home losses to Northwestern and Penn State, and that’s disheartening to everyone, but a basketball season is like a novel with 32 separate and distinct chapters. I’m not putting the book down until I see how the damn thing ends.
Redemption requires adversity, and the Hoosiers have provided half of that dynamic. Let’s watch the last 25% of this narrative before judging where the Indiana Basketball program is, and how Crean fits as the pilot.
If that makes me an apologist, it also makes those calling for Crean’s head on a spit reactive hot heads.