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Indiana basketball’s problems run far deeper than Tom Crean

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Indiana fans aren’t happy, but that’s nothing new. An evolving world has changed college basketball, but fans and the program are still struggling to adapt in Bloomington.

NCAA Basketball: Indiana at Minnesota Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

There’s no shame in self-preservation.

We, always as a society, have found some perverted nobility in fighting until the end. We shame those that quit, those that walk away, as having some sort of lesser moral fabric. Perseverance. That’s one of the lifeskills you’re taught at an elementary age, but, no, just pay no attention to the 300-some human kabobs those Macedonians are feasting on. Ignore that.

This particular hill isn’t the only one, and you needn’t die on it today.


Last night, Indiana’s men’s basketball team played a game in late February. I did not watch. I did not care.

Most of this is my own doing, and little reflection on the on-floor product. Life evolves, priorities change, and time is zero-sum. Had I a surplus of extra time, I’d perhaps sit down to consume subpar Big Ten basketball late on a Wednesday evening. But, no, no — given options, no thanks. I’ll check some tweets and texts occasionally, go to bed, watch the highlights in the morning. Indiana was good, excellent, and fun last year. They are not now. Unless you’re Kentucky or Duke, wild swings in performance from year-to-year are likely the new normal in a college basketball world where it the sports almost solely exists as an NBA feeder program. You can adapt, or you can drive yourself nearly insane.

Adapt.

Adjust.

Evolve.

Here, let’s have something of an uncomfortable conversation. Frustration is created by the gulf between expectations and reality. And that gap, for the better part of 20 some years has led to division, derision, and something of a toxic atmosphere around Indiana basketball. Are fans wrong to have high expectations? No, no. I’m certainly not here to tell you to be happy with finishing second, or anything of the like. But Indiana fans own styling of a Joga Bonito-like edict to play the game a certain way and have a the highest levels of success? Evidence would suggest it’s no longer tenable as a pathway to titles in 2017.

Indiana basketball fans have wanted to run off coaches before. Nothing changed.

NABC Classic Game

Jump back the late-1990s in Bloomington, where something of revisionist history treats Bob Knight well at Indiana. After the early 90s success of an Indiana-born core consisting of Cheaney, Henderson, Graham(s), and Bailey, Knight only recruited 4 Indiana born players over his final six recruiting classes before the late Myles Brand cut him loose. Four. Luke Recker is one. The other three -- Jarrad Odle, Tom Coverdale, & Jared Jeffries -- achieved their greatest success playing for Mike Davis. Consider this passage from a Sports Illustrated piece in 1997 here, openly wondering if the game had passed Bob Knight and it was time for him to be fired for a lack of on-court production in Bloomington:

Unfortunately for Knight, there seem to be more kids each yearwho cling to the notion that basketball should be fun. For Knight and his assistants, the task of luring high school stars into the joyless Indiana program--and then keeping themthere--has become more difficult than ever. The most gifted recruits today are looking down the road toward a career in the NBA, but these days that route rarely runs through Bloomington. Only four former Hoosiers were playing in the NBA at the end ofthe regular season, and just two, Calbert Cheaney of the Washington Bullets and Dean Garrett of the Minnesota Timberwolves, were starters. Contrast that to the late 1970s, when all five starters from Knight's '76 championship team made the NBA. Isiah Thomas, who left Bloomington after two seasons togo to the pros in 1981, is the last true NBA standout to matriculate under Knight.

Then the tumult came. Mike Davis strayed from the blueprint a bit, played a pro-style offense & took Indiana higher than Knight had in 15 years. But he didn’t Play The Right Way, didn’t recruit Indiana kids, and then broke Indiana’s consecutive tournaments made streak. So in came FireMikeDavis.com and the like. Then Sampson, sanctions, his firing, transfers.

This is the crux of the issue and the uncomfortable reality for Indiana basketball. The factors that made Indiana a great job 30 years ago simply don’t hold as much water today. We live in a world that is now smaller due to cheaper travel, social media, national AAU programs and circuits, prep schools. Indiana is far less cordoned off than it once was, and college basketball in the state and nationally is far deeper than it was in the peak of the Bob Knight era. Bloomington isn’t an NBA market like Los Angeles. Indianapolis is known for quality, not necessarily quantity, in producting top-level recruits that power programs to titles.

The other common refrain is well is to play the Knight way, a stoic, defense first, half-court styled, coach-controlled system. The issue? Indiana fans desire to quantify success in national championship banners, and no team playing such a slow-down style like Wisconsin or Virginia has won a national title in 30 or 40 something years. In fact, since 1982 — only 4 teams have won national titles averaging less than 75 points a game per season. Lamenting Tom Crean’s free-flowing & flawed offense is like lamenting the spread in favor of the triple option in modern college football.

The NBA’s growth and impact have forever changed college basketball, and there’s perhaps no program in the country where these pains have been felt more deeply than in Bloomington. Indiana fans care and care deeply. The tradition exists here, and you can come and be loved. But it seems as though as long-time histories are fare less relevant now, when players dream far more of a quick six-month collegiate vacation & NBA check than a long, storied four-year career. As a fan, you may lament this, but you can adapt or live in a permanent state of frustration.


Tom Crean is not a perfect basketball coach. He leaves something to be desired in tethering himself to one system, his personnel choices can be suspect, his pants don’t fit. But he has achieved more success than any other coach in the new, modern era of college basketball at Indiana — winning multiple conference titles, a decent tournament record, having teams flirt with or have the #1 ranking for the first time since, yes, that same early 1990s period.

Crean will require either an extension this offseason, or a change will have to occur. It’s untenable for he and the program to have a head man that can’t promise long-term security to recruits, and such would damage both his future career opportunities and the Indiana program long term. Has his performance this season dictated an extension, given an aura of indifference manifesting in crowd size and the division in the fanbase once again? Probably not. Don’t be shocked if Tom Crean departs for another job this offseason.

This isn’t the only hill, and he needn’t die on it today.