by Kent Sterling
It’s stunning that Indiana’s basketball program has gone from #1 seed in the 2013 NCAA Tournament to unfit for an invitation to the NIT in exactly 52 weeks.
There is also the CBI for schools unable to qualify for the NIT, but Indiana Athletic Director texted earlier tonight that if not selected for the NIT, he and Tom Crean had decided that a bid to the CBI would not be accepted.
The question that is being asked after a season so disappointing that it could not place in two tourneys who invite a total of 100 teams, is whether the Sweet Sixteen appearances in 2012 and 2013 or this season of mediocrity was the aberration.
Do the expectations of Big Ten contention and routine NCAA Tournament qualification need to be recalibrated? In the past 11 seasons, Indiana has missed out on the NCAA Tournament six times, and played in the NIT once. That includes three years of rebuilding, but the 2014 season was not supposed to end quite this way.
The outright Big Ten Championship celebrated last season was the first in 20 year, and the Hoosiers have earned a spot in the Big Ten Tournament finals only once in 17 tries.
A 17-15 final record, despite a very weak non conference schedule, fell short of even the most pessimistic projections.
Worse might be a look at the future. A team that was unworthy of the NIT will lose a 1,000 point scorer, a postgraduate guard, Jeff Howard, and very likely the Big Ten Freshman of the Year – who is listed as a lottery pick in every respectable online mock draft.
That leaves point guard Yogi Ferrell, Stanford Robinson, Troy Williams, Hanner Mosquiera-Perea, Austin Etherington, Jeremy Hollowell, Devin Davis, and Peter Jurkin who will be joined by soon-to-be freshmen James Blackmon Jr., Robert Johnson, and Max Hoetzel. Can that group be expected to surpass this season’s result when they appeared to care less and less for one another as the season progressed?
How many of the players scheduled to return will decide to continue their careers elsewhere as their eligibility clock ticks more and more loudly?
When questions like that are asked, it’s a good idea if the guy running the show has some plausible answers, but it’s likely Crean is as flummoxed as the fan base.
Anyone who knows anything about Crean knows he will respond to this latest ration of adversity the same way he has built his career – through hard work and diligence. Whether that doggedness will bring a meaningful adjustment to the level of success achieved at Cook and Assembly Halls is the most important question and the answer is at least eight months away.
The support among Indiana fans has always been a little soft for Crean – sometimes unfairly so – but this season’s on court work, and the trouble off of it have people asking whether Crean is the right guy to continue to coach the Hoosiers.
There has been a lot of good, but the brief suspension for an undisclosed behavioral issue of Jeremy Hollowell, and the even briefer rip for Hanner Mosquiera-Perea after being arrested for OWI at three in the morning during a 72-hour window between two important conference games have fans wondering whether the inmates are running the asylum.
One thing is certain, Indiana will not move on Crean until there is more evidence that the program will not move forward with him at the helm, and that means he will definitely be back next season, and it will be a year that likely determines his fate. A step sideways or backwards, and the chorus of naysayers will grow in number and volume.
Indiana fans can be a surly bunch, and one trip to the Elite Eight or beyond since 1993 has them on edge.
A once elite program can’t look itself in the mirror and call itself that anymore. The difference between Indiana and other middling Big Ten basketball programs like Illinois, Iowa, and Purdue lies only in the ever aging National Championship banners hung by the work of young men now at least 45 years old.
Was this mediocre season a solitary diversion from regular success, or a troubling backslide that is the first chapter for another era of disappointment? Time will tell. Once the snowball starts rolling downhill, it’s hard to slow down. The snowball picked up a lot of steam over the past month.