Indiana Basketball – Is Tom Crean the right coach for Indiana in 2017-2018?

Tom Crean is doing all he can, but is it enough?

When I evaluate the work of others, my first step is to break the production of the employee into component parts.  By measuring contributions in individual silos, I tend to be more objective and through that objectivity discover whether my visceral gut feeling is accurate.

Let’s do that as well as we can from 35,000 feet with Indiana University basketball coach Tom Crean.  It’s especially appropriate because there are some in the IU fanbase who just don’t like Crean.  His sideline antics and complicated responses to simple basketball questions are off-putting to some, so let’s apply some objectivity to his leadership and remove the impulse to view him subjectively.

I’ve broken his responsibilities down to some elementary components – recruiting, results, academics and compliance, in-game scheming, and fundament instruction.

Recruiting – Crean is always given great credit for recruiting skill, and I have never understood why.  Yes, he found diamonds in the rough like Victor Oladipo and O.G. Anunoby.  That is good.  Not being able to entice a single top 10 recruit to Bloomington in his 10 classes is not good.

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Since 2009, the State of Indiana has produced 20 top 30 recruits, as ranked by ESPN.  Indiana has signed three – Yogi Ferrell, Cody Zeller, and James Blackmon, Jr.  Some, like Mason Plumlee, were earmarked for Duke or another obvious destination, and nothing Crean could do would have stopped that.

The upcoming class is the most troubling though.  Four top 30 players in the 2017 class call Indiana home, and none will play for the glory of ol’ IU.  Instead, Indiana will welcome Justin Smith, who is ranked 80th, Clifton Moore, and Al Durham – who are both unranked.  One or all might be the next Oladipo, but we don’t know that yet.

Recruiting Indiana successfully is integral to winning at Indiana because if you can’t sell an Indiana kid on the notion of playing for IU, what kind of success can be expected in recruiting a kid from the east coast who can’t point to Indiana on a map?

Indiana kids know how to play the game at a unique level because that is what they do.  If it’s true that it takes 10,000 hours to become the best version of yourself at any discipline, Indiana kids are much closer to that threshold at a young age because many play and train relentlessly.

Sadly, private conversations with high school and summer basketball coaches in Indiana reveal that Crean has burned bridges with them, and as a result the recruiting well has dried for the Hoosiers in the Hoosier State.

Crean’s philosophy seems to be to recruit the best athletes he can with the longest reach.  The result for the 2016-2017 team has been a hodgepodge of talent ill-equipped to function together as a basketball team.

There is no obvious cultural mold to which Crean adheres in evaluating recruits.

Results – Indiana has boasted two Big Ten regular season champions over the last five years, has qualified for the NCAA Tournament four times, and won its way into the Sweet Sixteen three times.  In three of the last four years, IU will have finished outside the top four in the Big Ten, and has never qualified for the semifinals of the Big 10 Tourney under Crean.

Academics and compliance – No issues on either end, it would appear.  Kids graduate and the NCAA has only groused in Indiana’s direction once – and that was because of a little confusion over the calendar.  IU visited Hamilton Southeastern High School one day outside the open period to say hello to future Michigan State Spartan Gary Harris.

Indiana has delivered upon the promise of providing an education for student-athletes, and Crean should be commended for that.

In-game scheming – Indiana appears to be a jack of all trades, master of none operation on both ends of the floor.  Crean has built a labyrinthian network of offensive sets and defensive schemes that are designed to baffle opponents.  Unfortunately, they more than occasionally result in confusion for the Hoosiers themselves.

There are moments of clarity where the Hoosiers operate as an offensive machine capable of outscoring opponents, but too often turnovers are the result of unnecessarily complicated sets.

This season, Indiana ranks 27th among 351 Division One teams in offensive efficiency despite turning the ball over on 21.3% of its possessions (ranking 317th).  That’s not all bad, but when IU’s defense also ranks 317th in forcing turnovers, that is a poor recipe for success.

In Defensive efficiency, IU ranks 102nd overall and 12th in the Big 10.  This is not a recent phenomenon for Indiana under Crean.  Last year, Indiana was sixth, and the year prior to that they were last.  The only year IU has finished as high as fourth was 2013 – the best season for Indiana under Crean.

Fundamental instruction – The only way for the majority of Indiana fans and those who cover the Hoosiers to appraise the level of instruction is to watch the execution of the team and draw conclusions based upon that.  Good thing, because that’s always the best way to gauge the level of teaching.

Indiana has often been a fundamentally flawed team.  Blockouts are missed, turnovers are committed, defensive switches are poorly executed, closeouts allow penetration, and overall basketball awareness is so poor Indiana coaches have taken to holding up signs to communicate the most rudimentary hoops concepts – like “Don’t hop!” and “Call out screens!”

Under Tom Crean, Indiana has become disorganized and chaotic.  It seems that Crean’s brain is in hyper-drive throughout the game, which shows a lack of confidence in the instruction that occurs during practice.  When a teacher’s mind is cluttered, it’s likely his students will reflect that by focusing upon the granular while missing the big picture concepts.

Conclusion – The question we as fans, media, and Crean’s bosses and peers need to ask is whether there is someone else out there who can be attracted to Indiana who can check the above boxes at a higher level.

Another question is whether the confusion and chaos apparent in year nine of the Crean era is an anomaly or whether it is standard operating procedure in Bloomington.  The logical extension of that question is whether Crean’s ceiling at IU is the occasional Big 10 championship and a shot in the Sweet Sixteen every other year.

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It’s been hard to watch the last four IU teams and hope for better days.  The team in 2013 was the zenith, and a return to that level of play seems a pipe dream.

Then the question we need to ask ourselves is whether that is enough to sustain our keen interest in the program.

Kent Sterling hosts the fastest growing sportstalk show in Indianapolis on CBS Sports 1430 every weekday from 3p-7p, and writes about Indiana sports at

49 thoughts on “Indiana Basketball – Is Tom Crean the right coach for Indiana in 2017-2018?

  1. joe

    Kent, doesn’t Crean have a big buyout package for one more year? Are there any financing problems that need to be dealt with. Also, give me 5 coaches that have the history or doing better, and….will come to Indiana.?

    1. Kent Sterling Post author

      The buyout is $4M until June 30th, and then it drops to $1M. Either a buyout can be arranged, or Crean is retained on the payroll thru June 30th. That part of the equation is easy. Finding the right guy is different. I don’t believe you need to hire a huge name – just the right guy. Brad was the right guy when Barry hired him.

      1. S Brown

        A “big time” name is not required. In fact, that would be another blunder. You need some young guy with integity who believes in education, morality, and hard nosed team defense. All others need not apply.

        1. Derek

          SBrown. I agree, I am 58 and I grew up and played HS ball during the Knight era. Knight had a focus on defense and his philosophy spilled over to the High schools in Indiana. When Crean was hired I don’t think the administration considered the pride that Indiana fans had in the fact that IU teams were known for defense. All my friends feel the same way. Even when IU is winning, I am yelling at the TV because I can’t appreciate winning with stupid turnovers, poor defense, no help defense, nobody back on defense. Driving out of control and throwing up a shot out of your butt, need I go on. I think we are limited in coaching options.
          No every coach will want to coach in a small town.
          Hire a young coach who is a defensive coach like Dane Fife. Personally I can handle losing if we are playing sound basketball. Odds are, if we play sound basketball, we will win more consistently than we have been.

        2. TB

          Depends on what you mean by a “big time” name. Like has been stated elsewhere here, John Groce isn’t necessarily a bad coach, but hasn’t been able to recruit well. Having a coach who makes kids go to class, makes them stay out of trouble and play hard-nosed defense is all fine and good, but what does it matter if it’s with crummy players? You need to find the right mix of a coach who can recruit with a coach who does all those things. That’s the challenge. And it’s a major one. You can bring in as many Joe Blows as you want, but if they can’t recruit good players, that almost would be a regression from Crean.

        3. S. Overdorf

          It would save millions of dollars and turn out a better product. It’s time for Crean, to go. Just about anybody could do better with this program.

    2. mike

      Richard Pitino would be a great fit.young,defensive minded.IF ..and it is a big if..he could bring Hoosiers caliber talent,3 years be a championship

  2. steve dubiak

    I heard you on the Peegs interview as well and it was good stuff. You are spot on and a change needs to be made now. We simply cannot wait another year as we have seen Creans ceiling and no kids from Indiana are going to play for him. It is time to move on now.

  3. Gilford

    Look at all the aging coaches at top tier programs who will be retiring in the coming few years. Not all of them will be elevating an assistant… they’ll be looking for young, dynamic replacements. We have to be ahead of that curve. Or… we offer a top assistant at a major program who may not want to wait a few years to replace his boss.

  4. Jeff Gregory

    Kent, can you give any more detail to the “Crean burned Indiana bridges” comment? I don’t want you to name names or betray any confidences, but I would like to, in a vague way, understand the type of things he “may” be doing to burn bridges.

    1. Kent Sterling Post author

      There is a haughtiness that is quickly communicated by Tom to area HS coaches, according to those coaches. Compared to some of the other D-1 coaches who stop by to recruit, Tom requires special handling. Same issues exist with some summer coaches. It’s all anecdotal stuff, but the messages are very consistent from coach to coach.

      I only mention it because the inability to recruit Indiana kids requires an explanation.

  5. Eric

    All of your points are salient but when the best players from the state don’t choose to go to one of the most storied basketball schools in the nation that is all you need to know.

    1. S Brown

      When you say “storied”, you have to look back at who and what made the program “storied”. It was not people like Tom Crean and Fred Glass.

  6. Gerald Smitley

    Cream is the teacher,well this time of year the student should know what they are doing. Cream needs to set down and let them play.

  7. S Brown

    My God, Kent, it took you nine years to come to this conclusion? Maybe you should take up brain surgery as an occupation.

    1. Kent Sterling Post author

      No, it took you nine years to read what I’ve written about Tom Crean, not nine years for me to write it.

      1. June

        Nine years and to be honest he has been a head scratcher for most of them, at what point do we also start to evaluate Mr. Glass as well?

  8. Tim McFalls

    Excellent analysis of CTC. He’s a good guy and appreciate what’s he’s done for IU… but it’s time for him to go. All this great talent in our state and hardly gets ANY of them!

  9. K. Man

    Whatever happens, I was truly startled to see almost a third of the stands empty during a B1G game! If that continues at the last home game with Northwestern, it’s time to re-evaluate the direction of the program, and it always starts and ends with the coach.

  10. Ron Wells

    The simplest way to evaluate coaches is, does the team play better after timeouts & halftime when they’re exposed to the coach? Crean fails that test. His team’s consistently get beaten by teams they dominated in the first half. That’s definitely a coaching issue.


    I cannot imagine getting a better coach so it frying pan and fire. At least he is not a Gung Ho
    Trumpite ignoramus like Bobby.

      1. DownTheStretch

        I will answer that. In my opinion here is my ranking of Big10 coaches:

        1. Tom Izzo
        2. Thad Matta
        3. John Beilein
        4. Chris Collins
        5. Greg Gard
        6. Richard Pitino
        7. Tom Crean
        8. Matt Painter
        9. Mark Turgeon
        10. Fran McCaffrey
        11. Tim Miles
        12. Pat Chambers
        13. whoever the coach is at Rutgers!
        14. John Groce

        Nothing but a hoops fan here who bases his opinion on past successes and eye tests. Where would you rank these guys Kent?

        1. Kent Sterling Post author

          My point was – even in this conference alone – there have to be at least six coaches that would be an upgrade over Crean – even for those who champion him as IU’s coach. I would disagree with John Groce. Illinois people likely see him at the bottom, but I think he’s a good coach who has been unable to recruit to a dumpster fire of an athletic department. I’m still not sold on Gard, who needs to win with his own guys before being launched into the upper tier. While I’m at it, I find Richard Pitino annoying to the extreme. His constant posing prompts speculation that he’s even more narcissistic than your average Big 10 coach.

  12. chip buchman


  13. DownTheStretch


    After nine years if we are still asking “Is Tom Crean the right coach for Indiana?”, the answer is self-evident. My gosh, NC State just terminated their coach and he had taken the Wolfpack to the tourney 4 out of last 6 years AND won a game this season @ Duke (which clearly Trumps IU’s two Nov neutral/home wins).

    The real issue is when to time the termination. Lets for grins shoot for the stars and say IU’s #1 target is Billy Donovan, who will still be coaching until the end of April. Is it worth the $3million in buyout savings to wait an extra 60 days and use that to negotiate a big deal with Donovan? I say no way do you wait, especially in light of the latest financial report issued by IU athletics that show a record year for revenue. The timing of all this will be very indicative of who the coaching target(s) are.

    1. Kent Sterling Post author

      Crean’s buyout is $4M until July 1, but that doesn’t mean firing him will cost IU $4M. If they keep him on the payroll through June 30th, he’ll cost IU the $1M buyout plus whatever he is owed between the end of March and June 30th. At most, it would be $800K – plus the $1M.

      The quicker into recruting the better, but it’s more important to get the right guy.

  14. TB

    I don’t necessarily disagree that it might be time to move on from Tom Crean. But my question, as always: If not Crean, who? You want to make sure you hire “the guy.” Not “the guy who’ll get you to the next guy.” For instance, I don’t think anybody thought Mike Davis was the permanent solution as head coach. He always was the guy who was gonna hold down the fort until we got the right guy. He even said recently on a B1G show about coaches that the progression should be something like Texas Southern, UAB then IU. Not the other way around. I’ll be honest, initially I thought Crean was “the guy.” He was young (42 or so), from the Midwest and had done good things at Marquette. But watching his IU teams make the same mistakes over and over and over again and seeing him not be able to recruit Indiana (now that Cody and Yogi are gone) — well, it just seems the program has stagnated. So who? Right now, there are only two guys I’d want to have the job, and I don’t think either would take it: Brad Stevens and Tony Bennett. Stevens obviously is in the NBA (where he doesn’t have to recruit) and Bennett already turned the job down and has a grudge against IU because of his sister. I caution against getting caught up in the flavor of the month, too — like an Archie Miller. I remember when Crean got the job, many were high on Brad Brownell — he was an “up and comer” and had Indiana ties. But he hasn’t done squat at Clemson. And as far as Alford? I think the old-school diehards would approve, but I’ve never been impressed with his actual coaching. So my question remains: If not Crean, who?

    1. Kent Sterling Post author

      Don’t sell Brad and what he has done at Clemson short. Recruiting against area rivals Duke, UNC, NC State, South Carolina, WF, and others, Clemson has found a way to hold its own. That is an extremely tough job, and Brad has been able to get Clemson some ACC success.

    2. Literally Anyone

      Brad Stevens
      Jamie Dixon
      Jay Wright
      Chris Mack
      Chris Holtmann
      Gregg Marshall
      Dane Fife
      Archie Miller
      * I’d even take Mick Cronin over Crean
      Shaka Smart
      Fred Hoiberg
      Mike Brey
      Bryce Drew

  15. Max Bess

    Even when he had good teams I felt like he fell way short of the potential in the Big Dance. So several years ago I wrote to Glass to say he could not coach as was obvious when he had no answer in tight games down the wire. With the standard boiler plate answers I got from Glass, I came to the conclusion that he was part of the problem. I gave up trying and still have no confidence in his ability to recognize coaching talent. Thus I have doubts about his ability to see problems that are obvious to the average fan so don’t be surprised if he doesn’t see the obvious need for change.

    1. Kent Sterling Post author

      Fred will back Tom until he doesn’t, just as was the case with Kevin Wilson. Fred understands the meaning of empty seats. Your letter might not have been answered in the way you would like, but an empty balcony is worth 3,000 letters expressing apathy.

  16. Scott Funk

    I have stuck by CTC long enough. He is indeed a “good guy.” High on education, high on character, etc. But there are guys out there other than him who are high in those areas.
    Unfortunately, I firmly believe Glass will give him another year, because of all the injuries. But I think those are at least partly on CTC as well. Go back to Maurice Creek, and we have had tough injuries consistently.
    What I can’t stand is: In the half court particularly, Watching us dribble out 20 seconds of the clock, and get no shot or a heave. On the break, we’re good, in the half court, no.
    Watching us play way too many ‘directional’ schools in the preseason (which is why our offensive numbers are falsely inflated). Play some decent mid majors and toughen up the kids for crying out loud.
    Watching us watch opponents as they dribble past us; not box out, and play below average (at best) defense ALL the time.
    I could go on, but just my opinion.

  17. Dave

    I have been arguing for Tom Crean to be let go for quite some time. I don’t understand fans. They seem to be concerned that the school is somehow being disloyal to the coach when he is grossly underperforming. This is not a popularity contest. It’s great to point to academic success, but many of the top coaches ARE recruiting and developing nationally competitive athletes along with students who are accomplishing academic goals. When you worry more about “standing by” a coach than achieving national success, don’t be surprised that you get the second tier of recruits and live in mediocrity.

    When I read forum boards for Indiana, it still shocks me to see how fans inside the bubble still believe we are an elite school that any coach would give their right arm to run. Indiana has not seen a National Title in almost three decades. I believe bringing in top recruits is one of the most important aspects of a head coach. Without the talent, it is nearly impossible to make a legitimate run for the title. TC’s recruiting has been below average at best. A great way to compare this is by going onto You can pull up Indiana and see their incoming recruits by year. They are ranked from one to five stars. When you look at a real elite team, i.e. Duke, Kentucky, even Arizona – they are filled with four and five star incoming players. Which is why year in and year out, they consistently are leaders in the AP Poll and make a strong run in the big dance. So when I hear fans call IU one of the most storied programs in the nation, do you believe that anyone outside of Indiana cares? I would hope a new coach would turn this ship around and allow us to be in the same conversation with the schools I have mentioned. I am a hardcore IU fan, but when I have friends from Purdue, Butler, and even Notre Dame have more bragging rights than me in our own State, you can’t be delusional about what a great program we are!!

    1. Kent Sterling Post author

      They listen to media generated talking points propagated by former coaches who will never turn on their own.

  18. Stan Courson

    Old coach in JH in Illinois. I haven’t seen such a team with poooor fundamentals. you name them,Ball handling, screening, blocking out, standing around while the ball is in play , and getting beat back on defense. Just to name a few. Check the availability of the Wichita State men’s basketball coach he’s a proven winner .

  19. Les

    This has to be absolutely the best synopsis of Indiana basketball I’ve read over the last five or six years , everything is very well stated and right on the money

  20. Garth (g-man)

    I am from upstate NY but enjoy following IU basketball. The tradition, expected level of excellence and quality of the IU program are what makes Indiana a pleasure to watch and support. I have always felt that Coach Mark Few of Gonzaga would be a perfect fit for IU. I know what you are thinking, Coach Few will never leave Gonzaga but if IU were to offer him a lucrative package, i.e., one of the highest packages in college basketball, I believe Coach Few is an absolute perfect fit for Indiana.

  21. S. Overdorf

    The Weave and Heave offense and the NBA style defense employed by Crean is a proven loser. Time for Crean to take his millions and leave.

  22. Chris

    Does IU have a good chance at landing Billy Donovan? I think he has proven what he can do and I think IU deserves a coach who has actually won college titles before.


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