It's no secret that 2010-11 has not panned out as IU fans had hoped. Most rational fans were not planning on the NCAA Tournament yet, but after improving from six wins in 2008-09 to 10 wins in 2009-10, most IU fans thought continued progress plus a fairly weak non-conference schedule made the NIT a realistic expectation. The NIT remains on the table, but the losses to Northern Iowa, Colorado, and Penn State dropped the likelihood to well below 50 percent.
There have been some rumblings about the progress, about regression, and so on. Many of those rumblings are over-the-top, particularly when they count the Crean era as a failure already. Some of those rumblings come from other fan bases, fan bases whose favored schools would benefit from a perception that Crean is failing and flailing. Still, many of the micro level criticisms hit the mark. I'm troubled by the lack of discernible progress from last year. While I don't have enough information to analyze each substitution decision, Crean's substitutions sometimes have the feel of grab-bagging. I wish the offense provided more looks for excellent shooters like Jordan Hulls and Matt Roth. Nothing I post here should be construed as unqualified support for Crean, as a suggestion that criticism of Crean is off-limits, or that there is any guarantee that IU will win Big Ten championships or advance to the Final Four under Crean's leadership. Still, from a big picture perspective, I think that the alarm is being sounded prematurely.
Any evaluation of Crean's record as Indiana's coach must begin with an evaluation of the roster. Here is a rundown of IU's current roster of scholarship players, arranged in class order :
Jeremiah Rivers. 2006 Rivals 150 ranking: unranked.
Verdell Jones III. 2008 Rivals 150 ranking: 126.
Tom Pritchard. 2008 Rivals 150 ranking: unranked.
Matt Roth. 2008 Rivals 150 ranking: unranked.
Maurice Creek: 2009 Rivals 150 ranking: 56
Christian Watford: 2009 Rivals 150 ranking: 41
Derek Elston: 2009 Rivals 150 ranking: 103
Jordan Hulls: 2009 Rivals 150 ranking: 107
Bobby Capobianco: 2009 Rivals 150 ranking: not ranked.
Victor Oladipo: 2010 Rivals 150 ranking: 141
Will Sheehey: 2010 Rivals 150 ranking: 144
Another thing. Nothing that I say in this post should be construed as any sort of insult to our players. I love our players. They all decided to enroll at IU when our program was in a bad spot with no guarantee of short-term success. Like most athletes who earn high Division I scholarships, they aren't used to losing, and unlike those of us who are fans, they can't escape it by going to work or taking a walk or by thinking about something else. Every single one of them is a legitimate Big Ten player. All that said, I don't think that our current roster, considering talent, experience, and composition, is anything approaching an average Big Ten roster.
Here's what I take from a look at the roster:
We are young. It's easy to forget, because so many of this year's contributors contributed last year, that this remains a really young team. Of IU's 11 scholarship players on the active roster, only four are juniors and seniors. According to Ken Pomeroy's experience rating, IU ranks #289 in Division I with an average of 1.33 years of experience. In the Big Ten, only Iowa and Michigan have worse ratings.
- We aren't overwhelmingly talented. Of course, recruiting rankings aren't the final word, but they certainly are a rough measurement of talent. Of IU's eleven scholarship players, only two, Christian Watford (#41) and Maurice Creek (#56), were ranked in the top 100 by Rivals. As anyone who has watched IU knows, Creek currently is a shadow of his pre-kneecap fracture self, and may not be back to 100 percent until next year (and there's no guarantee that he ever will be the same, frankly). The current composition of the roster is of two top 100 recruits; 5 players who were ranked between 100 and 150; and four who weren't ranked at all. Also, the talent IU does have skews young. As noted above, IU's young roster has only four upperclassmen. Of those four, only one, Verdell Jones III, who was ranked #123, was ranked even in the top 150. Much is made of IU's 2009 recruiting class, ranked in the top 10 by most services. Comparing one school's recruiting class to another is tough business, because it requires a balance of quantity and quality. IU's 2009 recruiting class was a six man class, with only two top 100 players but with three players (Hulls, Elston, and Bawa Muniru) ranked between 100 and 150. It was a nice class, but certainly not a class with a bunch of impact players.
- The roster is not well-constructed. We don't have a true point guard. Verdell Jones has some skills in that regard but does not take good care of the ball. Jordan Hulls is better in that regard, but isn't big or athletic enough to create his own shot very often. Our post men (Pritchard, Elston, and Capobianco) are a bit undersized for that role. Christian Watford is our best and most talented player, but he is forced to play out of position because of the team's frontcourt deficiencies. I couldgo on and on, and have before. I certainly don't blame Tom Crean for this. He has recruited reasonably well under the circumstances. Within a week or so after he took the job in 2008, Crean was left with two recruited scholarship players: Roth and Pritchard, guys who had signed with IU when Sampson was the coach (I don't count Kyle Taber because he was a walk-on, not a recruited scholarship player). Crean did what he had to do to field a team in 2008-09. The 2009 recruiting class, while not loaded, was a strong effort, particularly considering that Crean was able to land two top 100 prospects from other parts of the country. The 2010 recruiting class was panned, but both Oladipo and Sheehey appear to be outperforming their barely-top 150 ratings. Certainly, Crean was well aware of the deficiencies at the point and in the post. He went all out for elite point guard Kyrie Irving, who eventually landed at Duke. He brought in a seven footer, Guy Marc Michel, only to lose him because of an arcane and repealed NCAA rule that calls certain players professionals even if they haven't been paid to play basketball.
As I said, none of those things mean that Crean is above criticism. Even if everything that I said about talent is true, this team still should be better than the Creek-less squad that went 5-13 in the Big Ten last year. There are innocent explanations for this: the Big Ten is, according to the computer ratings, the best conference in the country, and nearly every Big Ten team is as good or better than last seasons. All of us have been hoping for years for the Big Ten renaissance, a return to the 1980s and early 1990s where every game (except Northwestern and Wisconsin and Penn State) was tough. We're there, but unfortunately, this came at exactly the wrong time for IU's program. Still, I'm a bit troubled by what I see on defense, especially. I understand that Crean doesn't want to abandon his offense because of what he views as a short-term talent deficiency. The defensive lapses are tougher to explain or excuse.
Finally, this isn't an original point. It's been kicking around the Internet for a couple of days. No IU fan should ever have been under the illusion that Tom Crean was a coach like Bo Ryan or Pete Carril. He's not a coach who is interested in a system that is expressly designed to allow undertalented teams to find a way to win more than their share. He runs an offense that requires talent, but the current crop of signed and committed recruits suggests that his system is attractive to elite talent. For 29 years, of course, IU fans had the best of both worlds in Bob Knight, a system coach who also attracted plenty of elite recruits. Had IU gone another direction in 2008, yet had the same exodus, where would we be? It's impossible to know. It's certainly possible, perhaps even likely, that a Bo Ryan-type coach could be getting more out of this current roster than Crean is getting. I think it's possible, if he were willing to abandon his offense and dramatically change things, that Crean himself could be getting more out of this team than he is. I don't think Crean is clueless. I think he has made a determination that eking into the NIT with this team is not this program's endgame. Accumulating the sort of talent that is needed to compete for Big Ten and NCAA championships is his endgame, and he wants the current roster immersed in that system once the top tier talent arrives.
Prior to coming to Indiana, Crean had never had a losing season as a head coach. He made it to the postseason 8 times in 9 years at Marquette. He took the Golden Eagles to their only Final Four appearance of the last three decades. He managed a seamless transition from Conference USA to the Big East. He won two thirds of his games at Marquette. He was Michigan State's recruiting coordinator in the mid 1990s when the Spartans seized control of Michigan recruiting from the Michigan Wolverines, just a couple of years after the Fab Five. This guy didn't suddenly get stupid when he came to Indiana. He's an accomplished coach, and there is no doubt in my mind that he can win big at Indiana.
Again,I certainly buy into lots of the micro-level criticisms, as noted above. But on a macro level, I think we're in good shape.