For Indiana to rise again, Tom Crean has to evolve
By Gregg Doyel
What's happening right now with Indiana basketball, it’s not good enough. You see that, I see that, everybody sees that. Especially IU athletic director Fred Glass.
Question is, what does Glass do about it?
Let me tell you something: The answer is not as easy as you might think.
Indiana fans, at least the ones making the most noise, want a new coach. They’d love Brad Stevens of the Boston Celtics and they’d settle for Tony Bennett of Virginia. What Indiana could get remains to be seen, but here are two names Indiana wouldn’t be able to get:
Brad Stevens. Tony Bennett.
Look, the world has changed. You’re sick of reading it? Good. I'm sick of writing it. Maybe now’s the time we can move on to the world we live in today, a world where Indiana cannot simply snap its fingers and hire whomever it wants. This isn’t that kind of program. It’s close, but close doesn’t cut it.
To get an A-list coach, a no-brainer, the kind of guy you simply know will take IU to a Final Four sooner than later? That guy already has a great job in the NBA or at Virginia or Arizona (Sean Miller) or UCLA (Steve Alford). Indiana cannot fire Tom Crean and snap its fingers and make Billy Donovan (Oklahoma City Thunder) appear.
Fred Glass knows it, believe me. Do I think Glass is determined to bring back Crean, no matter what? No. But I do believe Glass is inclined to bring back Crean, just as he was inclined to bring back football coach Kevin Wilson year after year, until the day comes when he simply can’t justify bringing him back again.
For Wilson, that day came in December when his miserable method of leadership — not his mediocre record — caused Glass to pull the plug.
For Crean, has that day arrived?
Hold on for the big reveal …I don’t know.
The experts, they know better than I do. You know the experts: folks on message boards and Facebook and Twitter. Certain media members, none of them from around here, who can throw speculation against the wall from several states away and see what sticks.
What’s sticking now? Well, let’s see. I’m trying to keep up, but Monday what was sticking was: Missouri. The Missouri job is Crean’s if he wants it, and he’s taking a hard look at it. That’s what the experts are saying.
A few weeks ago the North Carolina State job was sticking, but the adhesion wore off. The rumor mill burns on new material, not old material. N.C. State is old. Missouri is new. So Missouri is “the word” from those with a “source close to the program.”
Me, I’m no expert. I don’t talk to “sources close to the program.” I talk to people with names you’d recognize, and while I can’t tell you who they are or what they’re telling me, I can tell you that the best move for all involved is no move. Unless I'm wrong — unless Indiana can get some no-brainer superstar coach — Indiana’s best bet to turn this program around is for Crean to continue his evolution as a coach.
He took a major step last season when he let go a little bit, turned down ever so slightly that Type-A personality of his, stopped working his players so hard in practice and started to let senior Yogi Ferrell take more ownership of the program.
The next step for Crean if he returns is to find more players like Yogi Ferrell, and fewer players like the ones he has now. Crean has proven to be pretty spectacular at unearthing recruits who aren’t elite college prospects (Victor Oladipo, OG Anunoby) and turning them into elite NBA prospects. Now he needs to find more leaders. More winners.
Crean needs to do what Purdue coach Matt Painter did three years ago. In 2013-14 Painter was snake-bitten by his own success, using that glorious run sparked by Robbie Hummel, JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore to get a different kind of recruit, a “better” kind of recruit.
And it didn’t work. Three years after winning 29 games and the Big Ten regular-season championship, the Boilermakers went 16-18. The next year they were 15-17 and last in the Big Ten.
Painter gave his program a reboot. Players left. Pushed out, jumped on their own, whatever. Painter turned his roster upside down, starting with perhaps the most important recruiting class of his dozen years, a class featuring Dakota Mathias, Vince Edwards, P.J. Thompson and Isaac Haas. Those are Painter’s juniors, the foundation of a team that has won 25 games and the 2017 Big Ten regular-season title by two full games over Wisconsin and Maryland.
“Just trying to bring people in our program that are about winning,” Painter was saying last week.
Winners? Indiana doesn’t have enough of those. Crean gave us a whiff of that after Indiana’s loss Feb. 12 to Michigan, when he bemoaned his team’s lack of leadership, specifically in the backcourt. No need to pile on here, but you know their names. You also know this: They aren’t winners. Crean basically said so, and we’ve seen it for ourselves. Tenth place in the Big Ten doesn’t lie. Crean recruited those players, so that’s on him. Like I said, if he’s going to stay, he has to evolve.
But let’s be fair: While this season is utterly unacceptable, Crean’s Hoosiers did win two Big Ten Titles in the previous four years. They did beat Kentucky in the 2016 NCAA tournament. They have gone to three Sweet 16s in six years, more than Purdue, Butler and Notre Dame — combined. And those three schools have sensational coaches.
My point is, Glass has legit reasons to bring back Crean, including the $4 million it would cost to buy out the final three seasons of Crean’s contract. That figure drops to a more manageable $1 million on July 1, but forget that; IU wouldn’t fire Crean then, because a great replacement isn’t leaving his program in July.
So the decision has to come soon. Like, whenever Indiana is knocked from the Big Ten tournament this week. IU has to be decisive, one way or the other. Jump in the pool with Missouri and N.C. State and others, or go back in the house.
If I’m Fred Glass, I’m going back inside. My coach is down the hall.