Shootaround: Tom Crean hoping to build for consistent success at Indiana
The day after Indiana won at Iowa to clinch an outright Big Ten title, Tom Crean was recruiting in Ohio. This was more a convenience than a deliberate attempt to capitalize on a big moment: The Hoosiers didn't practice on Wednesday, and their head coach doesn't hit the trail that often during a season. So circumstances aligned to put Crean in a car and on the hunt for talent that might ensure more celebrations.
For Crean, chasing the future was fitting. Winning the league for the second time in four seasons pretty much soldered this coach to this school. It would seem that Crean and Indiana are in this together; the most important question now is where they go from the top this time. The last time the Hoosiers won a Big Ten title, in 2013, they lost 29 games combined and finished in the bottom half of the Big Ten standings for the next two seasons. There's a fresh sense of stability in the present, and an equally fresh imperative to maintain it.
Less than 24 hours after a championship, Crean was at work. "The negativity and the praise, you can't internalize either one of them," Crean says in a phone interview. "You just can't. You have to appreciate it or you've got to let it go, depending on what it is. At the end of the day you have to stay focused on what you're trying to get done. Keeping that going on a day-to-day basis is the most important thing."
The next few days will be busy: First No. 12 Indiana (24–6, 14–3 Big Ten) hosts No. 14 Maryland in the regular-season finale on Sunday, and then come the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments. That immediate future is challenging enough and may well include some moments that rekindle skepticism about Crean and his program. But it would appear more and more fans are capitulating: The cynical website dedicated solely to chronicling Crean's contract buyout has replaced its counter with a hearty "Congratulations, Tom!" and some embedded video of the locker room hullabaloo in Iowa on Tuesday.
Flameouts in March might inspire some recoding. But they alone shouldn't undercut Indiana's build toward consistency. After the Hoosiers won the Big Ten in 2013, they lost the top four scorers off that club, including NBA lottery picks Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo. Left behind was a roster teeming with youth; five of the top six scorers the next year were freshmen or sophomores. The team that defends the 2015–16 title may be deeper, barring multiple unexpected early departures. It will lose a lodestar performer in senior guard Yogi Ferrell, who is averaging a career-best 17.9 points and ranks 11th nationally in offensive Win Shares (4.2). It also, possibly, could return its second-, third-, fourth- and fifth-leading scorers (sophomore James Blackmon, junior Troy Williams, freshman Thomas Bryant and sophomore Robert Johnson, respectively). Indiana has signed Class of 2016 consensus top-40 forward De'Ron Davis and consensus top-100 guard Curtis Jones to help plug holes where needed. Unless key cogs like Williams or Bryant decide they're NBA-bound, the continuity is ideal.
Yet the culture must progress unhindered as well. "This team in the past was not mature enough to hold each other accountable, really on or off the court," Crean says. "But especially on the court. Now, our film session and our practice sessions, they are very conversational. There are times guys will say, 'What were you thinking here?' Or, 'Why did you do that?' And it's not where the thin-skinned guy thinks he's being picked on. It's a real conversation." If Crean has indeed identified the right personalities for his program, that accountability can be an invaluable carryover from season to season. And, as he suggested, it can help stunt extracurricular problems that plagued the Hoosiers over the last two seasons. (Three players—Hanner Mosquera-Perea, Devin Davis and Emmitt Holt—were dismissed within the last year after run-ins with the law.)
"We're not ever going to be a very good place for the prima donna, I'm-not-going-to-unpack-my-bags, I'm-just-here-to-do-you-a-favor guy," he says. "And I don't think I'm good with those guys. They can go [to the NBA] early. But you want them to come in and invest in your program because you know you're going to invest a lot into them. That's what I'm looking at constantly. I don't think [the title] changes our recruiting. I just think it continues to make clear what kind of player, what kind of person we want to get."
If enough talent returns, and if the players' wiring doesn't get frayed, and if Crean and his staff can have some in-state recruiting success with the current lot of high school juniors—there are five top 40 recruits from Indiana in the Class of 2017, all of whom reportedly hold offers from the Hoosiers—then the program could have its long-awaited paradigm shift.
It also will help to remember the disappointments that preceded this, and what it took to overcome them.
Crean, in fact, says he addressed those struggles with his newly minted regular-season champions after the Iowa game. "I said, everything they've dealt with the last couple years, there's really no situation they cannot go into, where they should expect somebody else to hand them anything, or to ever be told they can't do anything," he says. If the scars linger for whoever sticks around for next year's title defense, that's not necessarily a bad thing.
That goes for Indiana's coach, too. When the questions about his job security came up in recruiting, Crean referred to his contract, which runs through 2020, and the support he felt from his administration. "It didn't matter what it was being driven by," he says, "because it wasn't driving me." Over a 20-minute conversation, he sounds like a coach who compartmentalized any concern about where he stood—it's impossible to assume he vanquished it completely—and doubled down on the way he wanted to do things. Then he'd live with whatever came next.
"Everything you want to believe, at some point in time, you need to believe it," he says.
And as personal as it surely got for everyone involved—and when a crowd chants "Tom Crean sucks" at your son during a high school basketball game, as one example, there's no denying it's personal—the gratification and vindication may be in the belief rather than the result.
"They have to deal with the brunt of criticism," Crean says of his players. "My own son has to deal with the brunt of criticism. Those things are hard. You can take it. But you don't want other people to have to take it. I wanted to do everything I possibly could do for them to win as much as possible. Because I knew what they were putting into it. That's where the extra jolt comes in, if there's a jolt. It's not just, hey, I'm going to prove everybody wrong. Because I didn't feel like I needed to do that. I wanted to prove that we were right. That these guys are going to be good."
Yes, Indiana has navigated the eighth-toughest Big Ten slate, per teamrankings.com, but it also has won 14 of 17 league games without Blackmon, who averaged 15.8 points through Dec. 22 before undergoing season-ending knee surgery. So maybe just call it even. It's not too soon to begin thinking about how long this level of success can last for the Hoosiers. It's not too soon to think about Indiana verging on the stability it expects and, frankly, has little excuse not to achieve.
We know the Hoosiers can reach the peak. We know Crean can take them there. They all like the view. We'll see if they can keep it.
The five best games of the weekend:
LSU at No. 22 Kentucky (Saturday, 2 p.m., CBS). Freshman phenom Ben Simmons playing an NCAA tournament game seems to be a remote possibility. It could get at least a little less remote with a statement game here.
No. 7 Miami at Virginia Tech (Saturday, 4 p.m.). Just as everyone clearly expected before this season: The Hurricanes' road to an ACC title goes through Blacksburg.
No. 8 North Carolina at No. 17 Duke (Saturday, 6:30 p.m., ESPN). The Blue Devils, withered roster and all, can essentially be the reason their chief rival doesn't win or share the league championship. It's always something with these two.
No. 11 Louisville at No. 4 Virginia (Saturday, 8:30 p.m., ESPN). Is this the last game Rick Pitino coaches for the Cardinals?
No. 14 Maryland at No. 12 Indiana (Sunday, 4:30 p.m., CBS). This may be more about the Terrapins, who have lost three of five, trying to rediscover some semblance of the team they were in early January.
With "One Shining Moment" already on my mind weeks before the national championship game, the five best TV theme songs of all time:
The A-Team. If no one else can help, and if you can find them, then maybe you can hire George Peppard grinning and smoking a cigar in a Godzilla costume.
The Sopranos. Bridge-and-tunnel montage + best show of all time = no debate.
The Greatest American Hero. Extra credit for the incarnation on George Costanza's answering machine.
Beverly Hills 90210. For many reasons, not the least of which is that little pseudo-cymbal double-tap right after the opening chords, which cued Brandon Walsh to do an amazing fake punch to Dylan McKay's chin for years.
The Jeffersons. Start humming this to yourself and try not to dance down the street. SPOILER ALERT: Impossible.
(Sixth Man: WKRP In Cincinnati. Just thinking about this makes me want to put masking tape on the floor around my desk.)
Two on Two
Each week, The Shootaround will talk to a pair of assistant coaches for a brief scouting report on a key upcoming matchup. This week focuses on a battle of Pac-12 big men—Colorado's Josh Scott and Utah's Jakob Poeltl. The Buffaloes visit the Utes Saturday at 9:30 p.m.
Mike Rohn, Colorado assistant coach: "[Poeltl's] size and his hands and how he can run are what make him really, really good. He's a smart player. He knows when to pick and choose his times as far as when to be aggressive and score. He sees the floor as a really good passer. You have to pick your poison with him a little bit and make him earn shots. You can't give him easy baskets in transition, you can't miss box-outs on him. He's got a really good jump hook with his right hand and he can go either way. All you can do there is make him catch it as far out as possible and make him score over the top of you, or dig if he dribbles too much. He's actually a very good right-handed driver from the high post. He doesn't do it all the time, but it's definitely something he's very capable of doing and they know he can do it. They put him in positions through pick and rolls where you have to be very conscious of how you're guarding the ball-screen situation. They have some special iso post-ups where it's hard to keep (the ball) from going there. You just have to play really smart and try to keep him in front of you as best you can. If he does catch it where he's wanting to catch it, you have to make him finish over the top of you and make a hard shot, which he's capable of."
Andy Hill, Utah assistant coach: "Josh knows what he's doing out there. In addition to that, he's so dang skilled. We were just talking about him in a staff meeting—he's one of the guys in the league, from a big standpoint, that can catch the ball on the move and do some things. In our league, some guys pop and shoot, some guys drive, some guys post, but he can do all three. He does a really good job of catching the ball in some space and driving bigs, and he's under control. He's not a guy that runs into a bunch of charges or turns it over a ton. He's pretty good at his hooks, he can up-and-under you—that's what makes him a pretty tough [assignment]. He's a heck of a weapon down there. It'll be a big challenge for us to get him under control. Our posts just have to do a really good job of working hard. You can't just let him settle in and get easy post-ups that are deep. Thank goodness we're coming off a game where we really had to work in the post—Arizona does as good a job as Colorado on most possessions of really hunkering down in the post. We're coming off a game where we had to fight down there and pull the chair and do different stuff. Which isn't always normal."
Court of Opinion
Whoever is in charge of putting horizontal stripes at the top of basketball uniform shorts: Stop putting horizontal stripes at the top of basketball uniform shorts. The "Made in March" series released by adidas this week includes more offending stripes where stripes ought not be, most notably on Texas A&M's shorts. And now Aggies players will look like they were standing in an open doorway when someone painting the walls mistook them for the wall.
Also, no one can tell where a player's waist is anymore, so it's not only bad taste but also anatomically confusing. Stop putting horizontal stripes on shorts. Nothing good can come of it.
During the past 18-plus years, I have visited Wisconsin often enough for professional and personal reasons that 1.6% of my blood may in fact be liquefied cheese curd. At the risk of a sweeping and unintentionally backhanded compliment, the place does simple excellently. This certainly holds true during drop-ins on the basketball clubs at Wisconsin and Marquette. You wind through Madison, you find Dotty Dumpling's Dowry about two blocks from the Kohl Center, and you have a delectably convenient Green & Gold Burger featuring "signature Bacon Mayonnaise." You alight in Milwaukee, you walk into Major Goolsby's, situated two blocks from the Bradley Center, and you revel in a double cheeseburger that is surpassed by few. And as you leave, you stash a case of New Glarus Spotted Cow or Moon Man in the trunk, because they don't sell these beers outside state lines. I'm guessing Wisconsin doesn't mind if you're drinking its beer here or there, as long as you're drinking it somewhere.