The Tom Crean Era at Indiana — The Bottom 10 List

-Originally published November 2, 2017; Updated March 16, 2018-

As promised, Part II of our review of the Tom Crean era at Indiana focuses on the negatives.  We believe that these are the primary factors that ultimately led to his dismissal as the IU head coach.  And no, you won’t see anything about the irrelevant personality quirks that some chose unnecessarily to harp on.

Unlike the top 10 list which for the most part highlighted specific games and team accomplishments, the bottom 10 list is replete with specific examples of various coaching decisions and program-wide concerns that we believe ultimately doomed the Crean regime at Indiana.

1. Inconsistency.  Probably more than anything else, this is what did in the Tom Crean era at Bloomington.  Inconsistency across seasons and within seasons.  2013 – Sweet 16; 2014 – no postseason; 2015 – bubble team, one and done; 2016 Sweet 16;  2017 – no postseason.  This is probably a perfectly fine 5 year track record for Iowa or Minnesota.  But as Crean himself said — “This is Indiana”, and with that comes the expectation of sustained excellence.  Is it realistic or just a relic of a bygone era?  It doesn’t really matter.  It just is.  Alabama finally found someone worthy of succeeding Bear Bryant.  Right or wrong, Indiana will likely do the same until the glory days return to Bloomington.

2. Recruiting.  Tom Crean came to Indiana with a reputation as a great recruiter.  And it didn’t take long for him to leverage that talent and the Indiana brand into some great recruiting classes.  The 2009 class was top 15 and included Jordy Hulls and Mo Creek.  The 2010 class was not highly ranked but highlighted Crean’s reputation to find “diamonds in the rough” with Victor Oladipo and Will Sheehey.  The 2011 class was top 30 but included his biggest win — Cody Zeller.  And then there were the 2012 and 2013 groups.  Both top 10, both with Indiana kids, and both with an inordinate amount of busts, transfers and incidents.  The 2012 class even had its own nickname — “The Movement”.  In retrospect it may have marked the beginning of a movement of Indiana kids not going to Indiana.

After 2013 the rankings would start to slide and noticeably, the classes contained very few Indiana based kids despite a wealth of in state talent.  Top players like Trey Lyles, Kyle Guy, Caleb Swanigan, Gary Harris, Zak Irvin, Trevon Bluiett, Kris WIlkes, Paul Scruggs, and others spurned Crean and the Hoosiers.  Rumors swirled of poor in-state relationships, and it was reported that Crean stopped hosting in state camps that had previously help build relationships.  Ultimately Crean was left to battle for out of state talent against everyone else, and the results steadily declined.

3. The Syracuse Game.  It was just one game and we are probably ranking it too high, but fair or unfair, this is the moment when the tide started to turn for some fans.  It was a game that would be mentioned over and over by fans that had already seen enough.  Some just couldn’t get over it.  In isolation it should not carry this much significance, but coupled with 1. — the inconsistency, the opportunity and talent that was 2013 didn’t come around very often.  There was that, along with the fact that the team played flat and often looked confused and overmatched against the Syracuse zone.  This was particularly hard to process since Crean had coached against the Syracuse zone many times while at Marquette.

4.  Defense and Turnovers. – Over the last 6 years of the Crean era, Indiana only had one season where they ranked in the top 100 in scoring defense.  For KenPom fans, Indiana was never in the top 20 under Crean in adjusted defensive efficiency.  Then there were the turnovers.  Indiana only finished better than 190th one season under Tom Crean in turnover margin.

And who can forget about the morphing zone to man defense?  Or was it man to zone?  And did the players know?  We mock, but there is something to playing one kind of defense and having it be the identity of your program.

5. Inexplicable Losses – There were many individual losses and series that infuriated the masses.  Losses that should never happen to a program that considers itself elite.  At Ft. Wayne in 2016 along with home losses to Nebraska in 2016, and Eastern Washington and Northwestern in 2014 immediately come to mind.  Series against Nebraska (4-4), Purdue (lost 5 of last 6), Northwestern (lost 3 of last 7), Penn State (lost 2 of last 5), and Butler (2-2) were particularly hard to swallow.

6. Wisconsin.  2-10 over the last 6 seasons.  Need we say more?  Most of the games followed the exact same script — a slow methodical death where the Wisconsin system dictated the game flow.  Of course Wisconsin was good during these years and at one point very good, but enough is enough.  And win at the Kohl Center?  Forget about it.

7. Substitution Patterns, and “The Substitution”.  This one goes with the territory of coaching the elite program in the state of Indiana.  The fans appreciate the nuances of the game and the coaches are under a microscope.  Much would be said about Crean’s hockey line shift substitutions where 3, 4, even 5 guys would come into the game at once.  Much of it was nonsense although there were times when it felt like momentum was interrupted and hot players were needlessly taken out.

But then there moments like The Substitution.  Late in a home game against Wisconsin, Crean substituted Austin Etherington in for Noah Vonleh to guard Mr. All Everything Frank Kaminsky.  When it became apparent that Etherington would guard Kaminsky, clearly audible gasps and cries of “NO” could be heard throughout Assembly Hall.  Wisconsin immediately capitalized on this decision and Kaminsky scored and was fouled.  A chorus of boos rang out from the crowd, directed at the coach.  Only in Indiana.  Ironically, this would end up being one of the 2 times Crean actually did beat Wisconsin during his tenure.

8. Positionless Basketball.  It sounds good in theory, but does it work?  Is it in the best interest of the team, or is it meant more for the players?  Thomas Bryant and Noah Vonleh out on the perimeter?  Juwan Morgan and Jeremy Hollowell playing point guard?  It felt more like NBA auditions rather than a sound fundamental strategy for winning games.  It reminded us of Cam Cameron moving Antwaan Randle El to wide receiver.  What a disaster that was.  For our basketball team, we believe that it created players that were good at everything, masters of nothing.  While it is hard to gripe too much about Tom Crean’s offense, one thing that did stand out was that if we were slowed down to a half court game, the offense often sputtered.  Ahem, remember Wisconsin?  Perhaps it was because no one was a master of their position?  We certainly never saw a fundamentally sound post player during his tenure.

9. Shoot With the Other Hand?  Chalk this one up as perhaps the most bizarre decision during the Crean era.  We don’t think Tom Crean came up with the idea, but he certainly could have vetoed it.  We are talking about the decision to have Stanford Robinson switch shooting hands.  I just defies all logic for a 19-20 year old kid who has been playing basketball his whole life to switch shooting hands.  Tweak the stroke?  Sure.  But we are pretty sure the whole right hand / left hand thing gets figured out when we are a tad younger.

10. The 2013 Faux B1G Celebration.  Immediately after a home court loss to Ohio State, on senior night, in a game that could have cost IU the outright B1G title, the Hoosiers put on championship hats, raised the B1G trophy and cut down the nets.  Nitpicking?  Sure.  But this relatively harmless display just might have been an insight into the culture of a Tom Crean program.  It almost had a participation trophy feel to it.  It is probably just over analysis, but then, something about it just didn’t feel right.

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Top photo credit – AJ Mast via AP images