Well, I thought I could do it, but I can’t.
I spent last night stewing about Indiana’s terrible 69-60 home loss to Penn State, and I told myself that I’d wake up this morning, put it behind me, and have a productive day. But I can’t. Not without first venting and then second putting everything into perspective so that I can move forward with some semblance of optimism.
Lucky for me I run this here sports blog, so I have a place to do both and can invite other frustrated IU fans to commiserate with me.
As I know is the case for many of my IU brethren, home losses to teams like Penn State – which lost to mighty Maine in its previous ballgame – just don’t sit well with me. Three game losing streaks don’t sit well with me. IU appearing listless and disorganized does not sit well with me. Yet here we are, with all three of those unfortunate realities staring us smack dab in the face.
If I tried to sum up how pissed off and frustrated I was after last night’s loss, I know that I would fail in trying to find the right words. Fortunately YouTube exists, which allowed me to play this over and over again and relieve a little bit of my frustration.
Note: video contains audio of an angry old man using extremely bad language. You’ve been warned.
Yes, in the aftermath of Indiana’s 9-point loss to Penn State, I was hoping that the current Hoosiers were receiving a tongue-lashing somewhere in the neighborhood of 25-50% as strong as the one you just heard. One line in that infamous recording sums up perfectly how I felt during the minutes and hours after the IU-Penn State game went final: This is absolute fucking bullshit.
And it was.
I am all for patience, I understand just how bad a shape the IU basketball program was when Tom Crean took over, and I am still firmly in his corner as I will explain later. All that said, I do believe it is reasonable for IU fans to now consider a loss like last night’s unacceptable.
And, as a quick aside directed at Coach Crean:
I don’t want to hear any excuses about Christian Watford having back spasms or “old demons” rearing their ugly head. If we had just lost a close game to Ohio State or Purdue or Michigan State, and played well in doing so, I’d be much more willing to listen to that kind of explanation, given the reality of where our program is. But this was a home game against Penn State, a team picked by everyone to finish at or near the bottom of the Big Ten, and we came out with no sense of urgency and no cohesion on either end of the floor. That is a problem, and it’s your problem. Last night was a night for you to accept blame for your team being outcoached, outsmarted, and outhustled, because they were. And the responsibility is yours to get that turned around.
We will all now see if Tom Crean can, in fact, lead this Hoosier squad out of its current doldrums and into something resembling a smart, competitive basketball team. While Coach Crean has done a lot of things in his short tenure to inspire confidence and support among the Hoosier faithful, it is this most important task that he has yet to prove he can handle.
For the sake of discussion, here is a quick rundown of what I want out of Indiana’s basketball coach:
- Win games, compete for Big Ten championships, make regular NCAA Tournament appearances
- Do the above without making egregious rules violations* that call into question the integrity of the program
- Consistently get the best high school players from the state of Indiana
- Put a team on the floor that plays hard, no matter what, and that represents Indiana well off the court
- Respect and honor the Indiana tradition and what this basketball program means to so many of us
* – I think it’s pretty clear that we are now in an era in which the NCAA rulebook is so convoluted and enforcement is so contradictory and seemingly arbitrary, that I have a hard time getting worked up over secondary violations like what forced Tom Izzo to be suspended for one game. I still believe Tom Izzo leads the Michigan State program with integrity and would be proud to have him as my coach. I understand that honest mistakes can happen, but I can accept those if there is an overall atmosphere of compliance and a commitment to doing things the right way. And no, I would not sacrifice #2 to ensure #1. They have to go hand-in-hand.
If you want to know why I stand firmly in Tom Crean’s corner despite all the losing, it’s because he has absolutely nailed 2-5 above. Three years ago, Crean famously said “It’s Indiana” when asked why he took the job. He has proven that he understands exactly what that means.
But, and it’s a big but…the further and further removed we get from the wreckage that Crean inherited, the more he has to take ownership of the product on the floor. And as much as I like Crean, and as much as I want his energy and passion leading our program, there is no question that the bottom line is what is listed #1 above: win games, compete for Big Ten championships, make regular NCAA Tournament appearances.
This is the first time during Crean’s tenure that I am having legitimate doubts about his ability to ultimately achieve #1 consistently. However, I also believe that this is a good time for IU fans to give themselves a perspective check and for all of us to make sure that our expectations are in line with reality.
It is inevitable that until the end of time all Indiana basketball coaches will be compared to Bob Knight. His shadow continues to loom large over our program more than a decade since his firing, as it should. It is because of Coach Knight, and Branch McCracken before him, that “It’s Indiana” means what it meant to Tom Crean and to so many others.
Furthermore, the fact that Indiana has had two coaches win multiple national championships should also provide IU fans everywhere with a sense of confidence. It’s not like Bob Knight led Army to the three titles. IU had a pretty good tradition when he got here, having won two titles under McCracken (’40 and ’53), and Coach Knight took it to the next level (winning titles in ’76, ’81, and ’87).
So as great as Knight was, and as large as his shadow still looms, it’s important to remember that Tom Crean said, “it’s Indiana” not “it’s Bob Knight.” The program is bigger than one man, no matter how legendary that man is. Yet, when IU fans watch the IU team of 2010-11, we all still compare every movement, every shot, and every decision to Knight’s teams. (At least, I find myself doing this. Perhaps it’s presumptive to assume that all IU fans do the same.)
When our offense stagnates or we run set play after set play, we all long for the masterful way so many IU teams ran the motion offense. When our defense is out of position, we long for the days of the IU teams that always seemed so well-drilled and prepared to play 40 minutes of consistent man-to-man defense. At the ends of games, when the current Hoosiers seem clueless and unable to get a good shot, with Crean often having to call timeouts to set up set plays, we long for the days of Knight refusing to call timeouts while instead relying on his team to run the motion and understand how to get its best shooter a high percentage shot.
So here is what we all have to realize: Tom Crean is not Bob Knight…and that’s okay. In fact, when it comes to teaching college players how to execute on the offensive and defensive ends of the floor, Tom Crean isn’t even close to being Bob Knight. I’m sure even he would admit that, and there would be no shame in such an admission. For 30 years, Indiana fans were blessed to have one of the 5-10 greatest coaches in the history of basketball. There will always be debates about how to order John Wooden, Henry Iba, Coach K, Coach Knight and the other legends of college basketball, but even the biggest Knight hater would admit that he’s among the best ever. And you can’t really fault IU fans for constantly reminiscing about the beautifully and consistently executed brand of basketball that Knight teams played, and the expectations that developed over 30 years.
I also don’t think you can fault IU fans for wanting to see more of that consistency and execution from the current crop of Hoosiers, but we all need to realize that it’s just not going to happen.
Look at Tom Crean’s record at Marquette:
- In the six years Crean coached Marquette when they were in Conference USA, he won one conference title (the year he had Dwyane Wade and went to the Final Four)
- In the three years Crean coached Marquette when they were in the Big East, he never finished higher than tied for 4th and never made it to the Sweet 16.
- In nine years overall at Marqueette, Crean made five NCAA tournaments, three NIT tournaments, and missed post-season play altogether one year.
- In nine years, Crean had single-digit losses only two years: the 01-02 season and the 02-03 season. Those were the two seasons Crean had Wade, who would then go on to become one of the best players in the NBA.
Here is what I think we can surmise from Crean’s track record before coming to IU:
- He is a solid but unspectacular coach who will win a little less than 2/3 of his games
- When he has a supremely talented player, Crean’s team can thrive because said player will have the freedom to dominate games with his individual talent
- Crean can recruit and attract the talent necessary to compete in a big conference and get consistent tournament berths, but he has not shown the ability to produce great teams consistently.
So, what’s my point with all of this? My point is that anyone who expected Crean to quickly turn Indiana back into the program it was in the 70s, 80s, and early 90s was sorely overestimating his ability and what was and is within the realm of possibility. While I do believe that Crean’s ceiling at Indiana is higher than what he was able to achieve at Marquette, there is nothing in Crean’s history to suggest that he will be able to produce a program at IU that is even 75-80% of what Knight did. This does not mean that we as fans should temper our hopes, dreams, and goals for what IU can become, but it does mean, I think, that we need to remember to be realistic in our expectations as we move forward with Tom Crean.
One reason is that unless Brad Stevens declares that he is ready to move to Bloomington, who would Indiana hire right now that would be a better fit than Crean? Is there anyone? I cannot come up with a name off the top of my head – and I even have some doubts (not a lot, just some) about Steven’s ability to handle a more high profile job like IU. It’s possible he and Butler are simply the perfect fit and that it is in everyone’s best interest for him to stay put.
Another reason to be realistic in what we expect from Crean is that we all knew from the beginning that his system demands guards with NBA-level talent to succeed on the level close to what we all expect. Mo Creek has some NBA potential once he gets back to full health, and Victor Oladipo could possibly develop into that, but neither is close right now. Jordan Hulls and Verdell Jones? Please. Both are nice college players who will not sniff the NBA. Thus, the ceiling for this year’s team is very limited with the system Crean employs.
Fortunately, Crean does have commitments from high school players who project as the kind of talented guards Crean’s system demands. We can wish for a return of the Knight motion offense all we want, but it’s not coming back. With Crean as coach, we need guards who can consistently create their own shots and penetrate individually to create shots for others. Until we have that, we will always be inconsistent offensively. (And yes, we also need to find a consistent post presence, but that hasn’t exactly been a staple of Crean teams in the past.)
Thirdly, and I think most importantly, let’s remember that while Coach Crean is struggling right now to deliver a product on the floor that we can all buy into, he is doing everything else right. He turned the program’s academic standing and character around. He’s recruiting like a madman in the state of Indiana, and he’s succeeding – and as far as we know he is doing it all with integrity. He also seems genuinely proud of IU’s tradition and passionate about honoring it. Also, Crean’s IU teams have, for the most part, impressed me with their effort.
So as frustrating and unacceptable as last night was, now is not the time for IU fans to start jumping ship or making outrageous statements about Crean needing to go. He is the best man to lead our basketball program right now, and continues to deserve patience.
Are we allowed to get pissed off and voice our displeasure with results like last night’s? Absolutely. The “honeymoon” is certainly over in the sense that three game losing streaks and home losses to Penn State are no longer acceptable without reproach, nor are excuses. However, there is a difference between a honeymoon period with a new coach and a support period. The honeymoon period is the time when losses and poor play pass with relatively little criticism, and when moral victories are chalked up. That time is done, as was proven last night. The support period, however, remains so long as the program is continuing to take steps forward overall, even if there are momentary blips and stumbles.
The honeymoon may be done for Tom Crean, but I think it is unquestionable that IU fans should still be firmly in his corner. This is a basketball program that was rocked to its absolute core before he got here, and Tom Crean has done a good job overall of rebuilding it. As the games and seasons pass, the on-court product will grow more and more important, and Crean will ultimately succeed or fail in Bloomington based on wins and losses, and how he does in the Big Ten and NCAAs. But bottom line time is not here yet.
Based on his track record and what we have seen so far, I don’t know if Crean has it in him to bring IU basketball to the level that we all hope for and expect. What I do know is this: based on the totality of his tenure in Bloomington so far, Crean has earned more time than this for judgments to be made and more benefit of the doubt before support is withheld.
Tom Crean will never be Bob Knight, and I doubt he’ll ever be Branch McCracken. As IU fans, it will make our lives a little bit easier if we understand this as we move forward. There is, however, a nice spot between the highs of Knight/McCracken and the lows of Davis/Sampson that Tom Crean can settle himself into. And isn’t that really the best case scenario? Maybe that spot includes a national championship and/or consistent Big Ten titles, and maybe it doesn’t. Time will tell, and it will obvioulsy need to include one or the other for Crean to be in Bloomington for 15-20 years, but after the last decade of IU basketball, I honestly just want to get back to good again before I start worrying about being great.
I don’t know about the rest of the IU basketball fans out there, but I can’t wait for the next time we win 9-10 games in conference play, let alone compete for a title. I can’t wait for the next selection Sunday when I see Indiana pop up on the screen, regardless of the seed. We can worry about great later. That time will come. But Tom Crean will make Indiana basketball good again; as many questions as I have about Tom Crean as a coach, I do not doubt that.
And if that’s as far as he can take us over the next 5-10 years, fine. I’ll still consider the Crean Era a success, all things considered, and it would then probably be someone else’s turn to see there is magic left in Bloomington. I happen to believe that there is and still have some confidence that Tom Crean could be the guy to bring that magic back. Let’s be honest with ourselves Hoosier faithful: at this point in time should we really be asking for anything more?
Let’s keep supporting our coach. Flaws and all, Tom Crean is still the right man for the IU job right now. Our patience does need to last into perpetuity, but it is still warranted even on the morning after a 69-60 home loss to Penn State. Yes, the honeymoon is over, but so what? No honeymoon lasts forever. It’s good that there are now higher expectations and disappointment at losses like last night’s. It’s good to see passionate, even knee-jerk reactions to terrible losses no matter how misguided and emotional they might be; it means the fan base is getting re-engaged. Add it all up and it means the program is being rebuilt, little by little, even with a few steps backs mixed in with all the steps forward.
Right now, that’s good enough for me.