by Kent Sterling
There are people who wear shorts in the dead of winter, and look like they are impervious to the cold. And there are people who are faced with incredible adversity who look happier than many who don’t have any worry in their lives.
I doubt Indiana Basketball coach Tom Crean left much exposed skin during this frigid winter that continues into late March, but the guy sure knows how to smile through what others would view as bleak times.
Five players left the program yesterday, and Crean spoke today of the opportunity that now exists to fill those roster spots on The Game in Chicago (click to listen). If Crean believes his status as coach is in any doubt because of the defections, he didn’t betray it in his optimistic series of messages, and why would he?
Noah Vonleh is going to be drafted in the lottery portion of the NBA Draft, as he has planned since high school. Soon-to-be graduate Austin Etherington is likely off to Indiana State to play alongside his brother. Jeremy Hollowell is going somewhere else because he is not a good fit in Bloomington. Walk-ons (a term I use with great respect) Jonny Marlin and Joe Fagan are also leaving the program.
The aggregate of the statistical impact of the four players not destined to play in the NBA is not great. Ask yourself what would have been different this season without Etherington and Hollowell. Would Indiana have been worse than 7-11 in the Big Ten without them? Whatever the answer, it really doesn’t matter as IU failed to qualify for a legitimate postseason tournament with the group now being lamented as fractured.
Crean is pushing in his chips on Morgan Park Illinois, native Josh Cunningham, graduate transfer Anthony Lee, and Bloomfield Hills HS power forward Yante Maten. Lee is 6’9″, 230 lbs, and averaged 13.6 points and 8.6 points for a bad Temple team. Cunningham is the more sought after player with offers from plenty of teams in the SEC, ACC, and Big Ten. Crean’s interest in Cunningham is underscored by his appearance today on Chicago radio.
Coaches have two statuses of importance – employed and unemployed – and the best way to migrate from the first status to the second is to listen to doomsday prophets or staunch supporters. Recruiting out of fear is almost certain to result in being fired, and the arrogance caused by satisfaction is another ticket out.
What Crean is focusing on is filling roles, not holes. When recruiting becomes a high stakes game of hope that the new blood can jump start a moribund program, the result is very similar to gamblers who throw all their remaining chips on the high odds novelty bets of the craps table. Sure, there is a chance of cashing in, but the overwhelming odds are that the questionable character kids with mad athletic skills and or the high-character kids with middling athletic gifts will ruin the team.
If the SS Hoosier is taking on water, the captain of the ship certainly appears calm and confident on the surface. Whether that confidence is well-placed or a facade will be seen soon enough. The proof is always on the floor, and if Indiana continues to appear disconnected next season – or worse – suffers another defection from the core group of talented youth, even a man as outwardly positive as Crean will be forced to privately confront his professional mortality.
It’s possible that Indiana will rebound next year with the core of Yogi Ferrell, Troy Williams, Stanford Robinson, Hanner Mosquera-Perea, James Blackmon Jr., Robert Johnson, Max Hoetzel, and the soon-to-be committed replacements. Those names on a roster would give reason for hope, but they will need to find a way to play basketball like they don’t detest each other – a trait sadly missing from this year’s team.
Or rumors of Tom Crean’s precarious perch in Assembly Hall will be much tougher to dismiss.