Stokke: Defending Tom Crean and the Hoosiers

What is the deal with Indiana Hoosiers fans? Is it greed or is it ignorance? Is it entitlement or just expectations? Whatever it is, it’s wrong. How quickly those who want Tom Crean fired forget. How quickly they forget what rock bottom felt like not that long ago. And how quickly they forget how successful the Hoosiers were not that long ago.

Before the Indiana Hoosiers took the floor against Northwestern in the Big Ten tournament, Tom Crean’s job was in ‘jeopardy’. It was in ‘jeopardy’ after falling to No. 8 Maryland 75-69 and it’s in ‘jeopardy’ after the Hoosiers lost to Wichita State 81-76 in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

If you’re calling for Crean’s job–and there are many of you–take a step back. It’s short-sightedness that gets teams and schools in trouble they can’t get out of. It’s why the Philadelphia Phillies won’t be contending any time soon in the MLB. It’s why Indiana was in the mess they were in to begin with.

NCAA BASKETBALL: DEC 31 Indiana at Iowa

Crean’s signing of Cody Zeller was the first big step in the rebuild

Not to turn this into a 30 for 30 preview, but what if I told you that Indiana would have it’s entire program gutted of players and scholarships and postseason opportunities? What if I told you a man would come in and take a program from 6-25, to 10-21, to 12-20 and finally 27-9 in his fourth season? After all, that’s kind of the benchmark for coaches, right? Give them a full four years to bring their own players in and get their system integrated throughout.

Since then, the Hoosiers have gone 29-7, 17-15 and 20-14 this season. No, the Hoosiers haven’t been back to the No. 1 ranking that Crean’s team achieved in 2013. No, they haven’t advanced past the Sweet 16. But Rome wasn’t built in a day, and Indiana hasn’t been Rome for a while.

It’s don’t-ask-don’t-tell in Indiana, but where do Hoosiers fans get off with having these enormous standards? Is it because of the five national championships? You know, the ones from 1940, 1953, 1976, 1981 and 1987. Is it the two Final Fours that Indiana has reached in the 28 years since that last championship? Maybe it’s the five conference championships in the last 28 years, one of which was a team coached by Crean.

Indiana fans–and I’m one of them–won’t forget about 1987 and everything that happened before it, but they can’t remember the expectations at the beginning of the season?

Inside the Hall listed the pre-season conference rankings from six different sources: Sporting News, Lindy’s, Athlon, Blue Ribbon, ESPN and RealGM. Indiana was predicted to finish no higher than 8th in the conference and the average was 10th. Best-case scenario was seen as getting into the tournament after a decent season and see what happens from there, maybe they could put together a tournament run. Worst case looked like missing the NCAA tournament again and looking for a new coach.

NCAA BASKETBALL: FEB 25 Indiana at Northwestern

Crean’s mannerisms are out there, but he gets result.

Well, the coach they have pretty much hit best-case scenario. Did they make a run? No, but neither did Iowa State or Baylor and their programs are okay. Duke seems to lose in the first round every other year. They’re okay, too.

The Hoosiers reached best-case scenario despite few things breaking there way. There was the injury to Devin Davis before the year. Noah Vonleh left for the NBA draft before the season. Luke Fischer–a top 100 recruit–transferred to Marquette because he was “homesick”.

The roster composition leaned on a junior that had to play like a senior in Yogi Ferrell, freshmen James Blackmon Jr. and Robert Johnson and sophomores Troy Williams, Collin Hartman and Stanford Robinson. That roster exceeded expectations early on, which created unrealistic expectations for the rest of the season.

Indiana won 10 of its first 12 games, including victories over ranked SMU and Butler. From there, the Hoosiers started out the Big Ten slate 5-1 with wins over ranked opponents Ohio State and Maryland.

Maybe that was Crean’s problem. His team played too well too early. The fast start didn’t allow for fans to temper their expectations when Blackmon hit a freshman wall and Indiana started playing in the rugged Big Ten.

NCAA BASKETBALL: MAR 10 Indiana at Michigan

Players’ appreciation for Crean can’t be overlooked

But that’s the entire picture with Crean. He took the gigantic leap from 12-20 to 27-9. He earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament in just five years. He won a conference championship and made it to two Sweet Sixteens. And just like that, fans forget that this team was 6-25 with one Big Ten win in 2009.

Crean’s seen three players drafted in the top-8 of the NBA draft in the last two years. Teams that have been established for years and years can pull that off without a problem. Teams like Duke and Michigan State can do that. Kentucky is doing it with a coach who has had a Final Four taken away at two schools before coming there. But Indiana hasn’t been established. Again, five conference championships in 28 years. Three trips to the Elite Eight in 28 years. As soon as Crean had the program built, key pieces of the foundation were taken out.

Of course Crean has his flaws. His first-half substitution patterns irk me at times, going deep on his bench and allowing teams to stay in games. His development with a guy like Hanner Mosquera-Perea is disappointing, as was it for former top recruits Jeremy Hollowell and Peter Jurkin. But not every big-time recruit turns into a star, and even Coach K loses to Mercer.

Look at the bigger picture here. Players are coming to play for Indiana and Crean. Make fun of his mannerisms on the court and goofy faces, but that’s largely irrelevant when it comes to anything meaningful. Players love playing for him and feed off his intensity, no matter how uncomfortable it makes others. His teams are winning, even if it’s not as much as the blind HoosierNation cares to see. Plenty of teams would take Indiana’s last four years, and plenty would gladly take what’s coming.

The entire team will return next year–not considering transfers and assuming Yogi Ferrell smartly decides to stay in school for one more season. Another year and a better year from a Blackmon-Ferrell backcourt? Another year of development for Robert Johnson and Troy Williams? The possibility of impact incoming-freshmen Caleb Swanigan or Thomas Bryant adding depth to the center position?

Indiana is a lot closer to that 29-7 No. 1-ranked team than they are the 6-25 team that Crean started with. They’re doing it the right way, and both cases have plenty to do with Crean. Don’t forget that, HoosierNation.

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