Everybody has an opinion on Tom Crean, and every opinion seems to be strong and unwavering.
There’s one segment of the population — mostly optimistic Indiana fans and media members/former coaches — that believe, without a doubt, Crean should stay. The argument usually goes something like this:
What? Get rid of Crean? Are you nuts? He’s won the Big Ten title two of the last four years and made the Sweet 16 three times!
There’s another segment of the population — led by a frustrated portion of the Indiana fan base — that want the program to go in a different direction. They recognize what Crean has done for the program in his nine years, but believe he has reached his ceiling and want him to go.
This group’s argument usually sounds like this:
This will be the fifth time Indiana has missed the NCAA Tournament in nine years under Crean, and he’s never made it further than the Sweet 16. This is Indiana — we expect Final Fours and National Championships, not Sweet 16s.
You won’t find many people with a lukewarm opinion that fall somewhere in between the group that wants Crean gone today and the group that thinks he should stay no matter what. Does a rational middle ground exist?
I don’t think it does, and here’s why — Crean’s Indiana program has never offered a rational middle ground. This is something I heard my good friend Alex Bozich talking about on a national podcast with Sam Vecenie this week.
With the exception of his first three seasons when he was rebuilding the program after Kelvin Sampson‘s mistakes, Tom Crean’s Indiana has either greatly overachieved or underachieved expectations every season.
In 2011-12, the Hoosiers were the overachieving sweethearts, knocking off No. 1 Kentucky at home and marching to the Sweet 16 before falling to that same Kentucky team. Morale was high because your reaction is based on your expectations, and fans were hopeful for what was to come the next season. Overachieved.
In 2012-13, Indiana was ranked No. 1 in the preseason polls, so it was impossible to meet expectations unless the Hoosiers made a run to at least the Final Four and probably the title game. The Hoosiers had a good season, but they were upset by Syracuse in the Sweet 16, and the year at large was viewed as a giant opportunity missed. Morale was low because expectations were high. Underachieved.
In 2013-14, expectations weren’t as high, but Indiana brought in 5-star recruit Noah Vonleh, so the cupboard wasn’t bare. The Hoosiers were ranked 24th in the preseason Coaches Poll, but they limped to a 17-15 record and missed the NCAA Tournament. Underachieved.
Indiana brought in a stellar 2014 recruiting class that included James Blackmon Jr. and Robert Johnson, but it was another middle-of-the-road year for the Hoosiers, finishing 20-14 with a first-round exit vs. Wichita State. This was the one exception because Indiana didn’t grossly overachieve or underachieve, but the Hoosiers did fall short of expectations, and they failed to make it out of the first round for two straight seasons. Morale was low.
Last season, expectations were lowered significantly after Indiana’s dreadful performance at the Maui Invitational and at Duke in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. The Hoosiers eventually righted the ship — something Crean deserves a lot of credit for — and Indiana’s run to the Sweet 16 and win over rival Kentucky greatly exceeded those lesser expectations. Overachieved.
This season, like Bozich mentioned on the podcast, is essentially the polar opposite. Expectations reached impossible levels after Indiana’s wins over Kansas and North Carolina, and Indiana has grossly underachieved those expectations.
In essence, it’s been a tumultuous run of either exceeding expectations when they’re relatively low and falling short of expectations when they’re impossibly high with no real middle ground to be had. It shouldn’t really come as a surprise, then, that fans and the media alike have formed opinions that fall on opposite sides with nothing in the middle.
Who’s right? Honestly, there’s truth in both sides. The facts are the facts, you just present them in a way that supports your side of the argument. That’s what everyone is doing right now. Here’s what I’ll say about this year’s Indiana team, as it relates to Tom Crean:
Crean has fallen short of holding players accountable, and it has hurt this group. Crean’s heart is in the right place, as it almost always is, but he should have sat James Blackmon Jr. down at some point this season and rolled with the other guys he’s got. Blackmon is a gifted and skilled scorer, but he’s selfish and puts himself before his teammates. There’s a reason why Indiana had so much success without him last season. Harsh, but true.
I see Blackmon being detrimental to the development of this team in a similar way that Hanner Mosquera-Perea was detrimental to the development of Yogi Ferrell and the rest of the team (minus the off-court incidents, of course). Mosquera-Perea cared about himself first, second and third, and he served as a negative influence on Indiana’s basketball culture. Crean wanted to help him succeed, but Mosquera-Perea never seemed interested. When Crean wasn’t as hard on Mosquera-Perea as he should have been, other guys noticed. When Mosquera-Perea was dismissed from the program, the culture started to change.
[Note: I also think that Ferrell’s development was aided by Blackmon’s absence last season.]
Blackmon is obviously a much better player than Mosquera-Perea and has never been in trouble off the court like Mosquera-Perea. I’m not suggesting he has. But Blackmon’s focus on himself and not the team has hurt the Indiana culture, and Crean’s failure to hold him accountable has hurt the development of Robert Johnson and the rest of the team. If one guy never plays defense, jacks up any shot he wants, etc. and never gets taken out for it, eventually you may start to fall into some bad habits yourself.
Crean called out Blackmon and Johnson on his postgame radio show after Indiana’s loss to Michigan on Feb. 12, but then started Blackmon and benched only Johnson in the next game at Minnesota. That sends the wrong message to Johnson and the rest of your team.
Recognize, though, that Crean is in a tough situation when it comes to Blackmon. Indiana was essentially Blackmon’s old girlfriend during the recruiting process, still there waiting for him at the end after Blackmon went and took some other girls for a test drive. So when Blackmon arrived on campus, he felt a certain amount of entitlement, and I’m not sure anybody’s ever going to be able to get that entitlement out of him. I don’t know if it’s even possible to change him.
But whether he’s Indiana’s best player or not, Crean should have benched him at some point this season and rolled with the guys who have truly bought into his program and his way of doing things. By allowing Blackmon to continue to play despite his ‘me-first’ attitude, Crean lost Johnson and probably some other guys along the way.
As a person close to the program told me recently: “It’s not that James can’t do it, he just doesn’t want to do it.”
[Keep in mind, too, that we saw what this beat up team looked like without Blackmon, and it wasn’t pretty. So it’s a very tough spot for Crean.]
Crean’s program depends on its stars to develop into true winners with a team-first mindset. When they do — like Ferrell — Indiana thrives. When they don’t — like Blackmon — Indiana struggles.
There is no middle ground.