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On patience, progressions and probability

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History suggests blue bloods make a coaching change after Year 2 or Year 3 if things are bad. Well, Indiana’s last 25 years aren’t those of a blue blood

Indiana v Michigan State Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

In January 2019, I wrote a story for Stadium titled “Here’s why patience is important after a recent coaching hire.” In the lede, I cited Indiana and Ohio State’s then-five-game losing streaks, plus Texas Tech’s recent three-game slide against unranked opponents.

“Despite their current losing streaks, the future is bright for each program,” I wrote.

Like Indiana’s free throw shooting over the last four years, I may have gone 2-for-3.

Less than three months after I wrote that piece, Texas Tech lost in overtime in the national championship game. Two months after that story was published, Ohio State beat Indiana in the 2019 Big Ten Tournament. That came just a year after the Buckeyes finished tied for second in the Big Ten during coach Chris Holtmann’s inaugural season.

Ohio State’s win over Indiana in the 2019 Big Ten Tournament was the Buckeyes’ final victory before Selection Sunday. After both schools went 8-12 in conference play, Ohio State (19-14 at the time) made the NCAA tournament as a No. 11 seed, while Indiana (then 17-15) was told, “No.” The Buckeyes then upset No. 6 seed and Big 12 tournament champion Iowa State, a team with three future NBA players. Recently, Ohio State spent a week or two as a projected No. 1 seed for the 2021 NCAA Tournament.

After I wrote that piece, which preached patience, I had a low-major head coach reach out and tell me he enjoyed the story. As a recently hired national writer, I can promise you the goal of the story wasn’t “Find data that stresses the importance of giving underperforming coaches a long leash, then get a DM from a random America East head coach.” I truly believed anxious fan bases getting restless with coaches in the middle of Year 2 was probably unwise.

The story highlighted coaches like Jay Wright (who didn’t reach 20 wins or the NCAA tournament until Year 4), Tony Bennett (who took Virginia to one NCAA tournament in his first four years, then earned a No. 1 seed in Year 5) and John Beilein (who won 21 games and made the NCAA tournament in Year 2 and Year 4, before playing for a national championship in Year 6). Right or wrong, these coaches were often identified by myself, and others, in 2019 and 2020 as examples of the type of trajectory that Archie Miller’s tenure with the Hoosiers could take.

And sure, it technically still could, if Miller gets a fifth season in Bloomington and, if that is deemed good enough, then a sixth. But as Year 4 comes to a close, the results are at best inconclusive, and likely closer to failure than passing if judged on a pass/fail basis.

Below is a line graph of every Big Ten head coach hired since the start of the 2015-16 season and his program’s end-of-season kenpom.com ranking, plus their team’s current ranking, as of Sunday, March 7. Note: Greg Gard replaced Bo Ryan during the 2015-16 season, then Gard was hired full-time after the 2016 season. The 2016 season was included as Year 1 for Gard for the purposes of the graphs below since he coached the entire Big Ten season and postseason.

Every coach besides Miller and Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell is currently on pace to have a better kenpom.com ranking this season than last.

Indiana’s KenPom rankings last three seasons will fall between the mid-30s and low-50s, and even Rutgers’ last two rankings (No. 28 last season, No. 33 as of Sunday night) are better than Indiana’s best ranking under Miller – No. 34.

Below is another line graph of those same seven coaches, this time with each of their regular-season conference winning percentages in each year of their tenure.

With the exception of Nebraska’s Fred Hoiberg, who has had the worst team in the conference in each of his first two seasons, Miller is the only coach in the group who hasn’t had one season with a conference winning percentage above .500. In fact, his trajectory is trending downward after this season’s 7-12 finish in the conference.

His best conference record was a 9-9 campaign in 2018. Seven of Indiana’s Big Ten wins that season came against the 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th and 14th-place teams in the conference – all of whom were ranked 85th or worse in the final kenpom.com rankings.

Holtmann, Illinois coach Brad Underwood and Michigan coach Juwan Howard have each won at least 80 percent of their conference games in a season since being hired, with Holtmann and Underwood, of course, being hired in the same cycle as Miller, which will forever link the three coaches and the respective decision makers at each school.

The closest thing to a proof of concept of the Archie Miller era at Indiana is the lost 2020 NCAA Tournament, which Indiana was projected to make as a No. 10 seed at the time the season shut down, according to Bracket Matrix. Big-picture conversations about Miller’s tenure can often boil down to a question of whether or not Indiana would’ve made the NCAA tournament in 2020, or maybe more accurately, whether the Hoosiers would’ve been a No. 10 seed or a No. 11 seed or No. 12 seed.

On the surface, that’s the front line of a battle in a restless base’s civil war that seems more fitting of a mid-level A-10 school than a proud one that’s in the Big Ten.

Who knows where Indiana would’ve fallen on Selection Sunday last season. Maybe last season the Hoosiers could’ve pulled a 2019 Ohio State and beaten a higher-ranked opponent, turning a pedestrian season into a suddenly satisfying one that’s parlayed into an offseason full of optimism. Or maybe that only would’ve made the tenor of Indiana basketball conversations more harsh this season, as the Hoosiers would’ve made the NCAA tournament last season, then missed it this season, in what would’ve been a clear step back in 2021.

Miller’s tenure at Indiana has been something of a long-tailed Rorschach test as it hasn’t been a resounding success and yet it hasn’t been an unmitigated disaster. There have been recruiting wins and some slight, year-over-year improvements in the team’s predictive metrics, such as those of kenpom.com. But the most important returns – NCAA tournament appearances and wins, and Big Ten wins and top positions in the conference standings – are sorely lacking.

The only ranked matchup Indiana has played in since Miller was hired was on Jan. 6, 2019, when No. 2 Michigan beat No. 21 Indiana 74-63. That’s it, that’s the list. There have been notable wins during Miller’s tenure, but almost all of them have been from the position of an underdog, an also-ran, an afterthought. But that’s often what Indiana has been as a program that has exited in the quarterfinals, or earlier, of the Big Ten tournament 17 times in the first 22 years of the tournament, with 2020 not included.

In its NCAA Financial Report from the 2018-19 fiscal year, Indiana reported more than $127 million in revenue, $11.1 million of which came from men’s basketball ticket sales and another $1.2 million from parking and concessions. That’s roughly 10 percent of the athletic department’s budget coming directly from men’s basketball home games. There was $28.3 million in contributions that weren’t reported as being directly tied to one sport, but it’s probably a safe assumption that, behind the scenes, a healthy percentage was explicitly or implicitly tied to men’s basketball.

Miller has a reported buyout of $10.35 million if he’s fired after this season, but the math can be more complicated if Indiana, potentially preparing for a 2021-22 school year with 100-percent capacity at home games, could lose significant revenue from ticket sales and contributions if fed-up fans are done with the Miller era. It seems highly unlikely that the school could stand to lose more than $10.35 million in donations, ticket sales, concessions and parking by keeping Miller, but that’s undoubtedly part of the equation that athletic director Scott Dolson and his staff will have to examine, regarding the future of the program.

In the program’s present and recent past, it’s long removed from the successes of 1987, 1981 or 1976.

Kenpom.com added a program ranking metric prior to the 2020 season, which evaluates programs from the 1997 season through 2020. Indiana ranks 23rd nationally, one spot behind Purdue, two spots behind Michigan and three behind Illinois.

In fact, Indiana ranks eighth among Big Ten programs. That’s in the bottom half of the conference.

ESPN showed a graphic during a recent night of college basketball that examined where the blue-blood men’s basketball programs were projected in regards to the NCAA tournament bubble. The schools in the graphic included Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina. It also included Michigan State, but not Indiana.

I have no desire right now to have a discussion about who is or isn’t a blue blood, or what makes a blue blood a blue blood – although that’s implicitly tied to any discussion about the program’s current status and its future – but the Worldwide Leader, or at least one of its production assistants, didn’t think that Indiana was one.

Blue bloods make coaching changes after Year 2, like Kentucky did with Billy Gillispie in 2009, before hiring John Calipari. Or they make coaching changes after Year 3, as North Carolina did with Matt Doherty, before it hired Roy Williams. Each school poached one of the best active head coaches in the sport and was rewarded with a national championship within three seasons.

Put another way: Archie Miller might coach his fifth season at Indiana in 2021-22. At Kentucky and North Carolina, five seasons is how long it took for each school to hire, then replace, their current coach’s predecessor and then have their current coach win a national title. Calipari won a title at Kentucky in the fifth season after Gillispie was hired and Williams won a title at North Carolina in the fifth season after Doherty was hired.

While acknowledging Indiana’s likely NCAA tournament status last season, a theoretical fifth season for Miller would be bottom-lined by Indiana’s participation in the tournament, forget winning it.

Kentucky also won the national championship in its first season under Tubby Smith, who admittedly inherited a roster that included five returners who were future NBA players, each of them part of a program that had been a No. 1 seed in each of Rick Pitino’s final three seasons.

When Kansas had to replace Roy Williams, it hired Bill Self from Illinois, which had earned a No. 1 seed in Self’s first season, then a No. 4 seed in each of the next two. Self led Kansas to a national championship in Year 5.

Say what you want about UConn and where it stands in the blue-blood conversation, but from its first national championship in 1999 to its fourth and most recent title in 2014, no other school won more than two titles. And say what you want about former UConn coach Kevin Ollie, but the Huskies won the national championship in his second season and he only coached four more seasons before being sent out of town.

The best programs win quickly and they’re quick to move on.

Archie Miller could theoretically turn Indiana into one of the best programs in the country if given the time, but the schools that currently hold that status don’t wait this long into a coach’s tenure to find out. If Miller returns to Indiana and if the reason is because Indiana worked backchannels and was unable to find an accomplished, sitting high-major head coach who wanted the job, then that tells you all you need to know about how the program is viewed by those who matter, regardless of how many banners are in view in the south entrance of Assembly Hall.