by Kent Sterling
If Indiana basketball coach Tom Crean didn’t believe he was in trouble before, the fact that I am offering advice as to how the program can move forward should sufficiently spook him.
I am not a basketball coach, but I’ve seen successful strategies employed in sports and in business, and there are commonalities among them that allow for fairly simple corrections. In no way am I asserting that I would be a better coach than Tom Crean, but I see things during games that spurs thought, and I like to share thoughts.
Indiana Basketball foundered a bit this season, and there are some reasons for that. Offering counsel from far outside the program – I did not watch a single practice this year – always allows for the chance what I advocate has already been tried or is in the process of implementation.
I am not an employee of Indiana Athletics, but I have been trained in the practice of both leading and contributing to a brainstorm. My objective was “In what ways might we improve the on-court performance of Indiana Basketball?”
I came up with 69 ideas, and then voted for my 20 favorites, and finally distilled them down to nine areas of concern that could be easily remedied with a single action step.
Here are nine pieces of gentle guidance to help ease the Hoosiers into an era where invitations to tournaments not requiring a fee are an annual event:
Improve the non-conference schedule. I’m not talking about playing a bunch of top 20 teams, but dropping completely those teams who are likely to wind up with an RPI that ranks in the bottom half of D-1. And why not keep it local? Play Indiana State, IPFW, and Valpo, as long as they seem to be reasonably good. If it’s true that “We are Indiana,” as AD Fred Glass asserted as the reason for not playing in the CBI, the same logic should apply for non-conference scheduling. There are two great reasons to improve the portion of the schedule that can be controlled. Wins should never cause RIP death, and fans deserve competitive contests. Indiana should never ever play a school whose mascot a well informed fan cannot name – i.e. Presbyterian, Maryland-Eastern Shore, Appalachian State, etc…
Decide on a basketball system and recruit to it. It seems Indiana is always adjusting to the styles of its opponents. Indiana runs a bunch of sets, and tries to push the ball, but appears to be without a style that determines the skill set of recruits. Bo Ryan runs swing, so he needs a very particular type of guy to play it. Jim Boeheim defends with a 2-3 zone, and recruits to it. Indiana appears to be enamored with length and versatility, but those are commonly coveted attributes.
Recruit with specificity. Indiana casts a very wide net, offering as many as 50 kids per class. That doesn’t exactly make a player feel like a special target. Indiana shouldn’t shop for Ford Tauruses, and buy in bulk. Crean should target very unique players, so that being recruited by Indiana is a badge of honor. I don’t know the intimate details of the recruitment of Michigan State’s Gary Harris, but while he was debating the merits of the Spartans and Hoosiers, Jeremy Hollowell committed to Indiana. That appeared to be the final scholarship available in that class, and Harris committed to Tom Izzo not long after. Even at that point Harris vs. Hollowell was an easy call. Maybe Harris would still have pledged Izzo, maybe not.
Dispose of mistakes and malcontents quickly. Regardless of the nomenclature of the NCAA, basketball players at Indiana are employees, and when they step way out of line or mope during games, they should be fired. There are those close to the Indiana program who question the priorities of the players. Too much partying going on they say. Hanner Mosquera-Perea’s OWI arrest during a 72-hour period between important games speaks to that. If you want to stop a behavior, bringing down the hammer on a violator usually serves as a sufficient corrective strategy. Firing Mosquera Perea might have gotten the attention of the team. A very smart boss once told me, “One mistake, it’s on the employee. Second mistake is owned by the manager.” I hope there isn’t a second mistake.
The assistants should tone it down. When a player hears one voice, following directions is easy. When there are five voices, nothing gets through. Until I sat behind the bench at the Big Ten Tournament, I had no idea the cacophony of guidance being provided by the staff during live ball moments of the game. Maybe I have trouble focusing, but there was so much communication, I couldn’t pay attention to anyone.
Anoint one leader. I’ve spoked to several players, and all feel they are either current leaders, or will be leaders next year. If everyone is a leader, no one is there to follow. There were huddles prior to foul shots this season where all five players were taking charge simultaneously. Voices were raised, and arms flailed. That’s a problem.
Reduce number of substitutions. Not sure how players can get into the flow of the game or adapt to playing as a unit when that unit sees relentless change. I get the concept of cycling fresh legs, but the flow of a basketball game is corrupted by constant change. [This guidance is likely me escaping my depth. There are reasons to substitute, and we aren’t privy to all of them. With explanation, I might understand the endless rotation.
Teach the kids the game, and let them play it. I am no fan of Bob Knight, and believe that Indiana was a late in firing him, but one thing he did very well was teach his players the game and let them win or lose it. Better to have five smart players capable of making the correct adjustments than one coach serving as the puppet master. Crean should sit down once in awhile and trust his kids.
Improve the message to the media. Indiana Basketball should be more transparent with the media. There is no sense among the media of who Crean is or what he stands for, and that is a bigger problem that 17-15 and no invite to the NIT. Coaches who use the media correctly are credited with wins and blameless for losses. Crean is blamed by the media and fans for most losses, and credited with very few wins.
There are a couple of things that I can say about Crean that will dispel thoughts to the contrary. There are people who believe he doesn’t know a lot about basketball, and that’s laughable. He has an encyclopedic knowledge. Crean is also seen as a self-promoter. I’ve never gotten that vibe in talking to him. Fans see a guy who is paid over $3-million for coaching basketball, and they believe Crean has it made. That giant stack of cash probably does as much to make life tough for Crean as it helps. If he loses the Indiana gig, where in the hell is he going to replace that kind of jack. If Indiana is a top ten coaching job – I think it is – there is nowhere to go but down after he leaves IU. That puts crazy pressure on the guy, and makes being a little uptight completely understandable.
As you do your duty as an Indiana fan and judge Crean’s work on a variety of message boards, remember he’s a human being and not a caricature. He’s doing all he can the best he can. Whatever else you think about him, even his harshest critics who have spent five minutes with the guy will concede that.
Next year is a crossroads year for IU. Another 17-15 record, and it won’t just be the vultures who call for a change. There are problems that have caused a backslide, and there are corrections for all of them before getting to a change in leadership, and that is why Fred Glass will bring back Crean. Problems get solved means leadership is sound. Problems continue, and leadership must be changed.