Indiana would be foolish to fire Tom Crean

2:04 | College Basketball
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Tuesday March 7th, 2017

The whispers are out there. It’s hard to say if they mean anything—they may just come from the uninformed. But if you follow college basketball, you’ve probably heard them. Tom Crean to North Carolina State. Tom Crean to Missouri. Well, here’s an idea: How about Tom Crean right where he is?

Indiana would be foolish to part ways with Crean. Don’t tell me it’s “time for a change.” We’re talking about a head basketball coach, not motor oil. There is no indication that Crean needs or wants a fresh start, and no indication that Indiana can find a better coach.

I assume Indiana is still in the business of trying to win outright Big Ten championships. The Hoosiers have won two of those in the last five years, including last year. They have made the Sweet 16 three times since 2012.

Sure, Indiana had Final Four aspirations this year and will almost certainly miss the NCAA tournament instead. But there are perfectly logical reasons for that. They started the year 14–6. But since then, forward OG Anunoby, a likely NBA first-round pick, is out with a knee injury. James Blackmon Jr., another potential pro, missed three games because of a knee injury. And senior Collin Hartman, perhaps the team’s best on-floor leader and a key player on last year’s Big Ten champion team, has missed the whole season with a knee injury.

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College basketball is an up-and-down sport these days. With so many early departures— some expected, some surprising—it’s harder than ever to manage a program and win consistently. Indiana athletic director Fred Glass should take the long view, not just react to a single season.

And yes, I know that Crean has not made the Final Four in his nine seasons in Bloomington. But the program was such a mess when he took over from Kelvin Sampson, the clock should not have started until Year 4. And since then, the Hooisers have been highly competitive in a very deep league. It’s hard to imagine Indiana finding somebody who would have done much better.

We probably wouldn’t even hear the whispers if Indiana had beaten Syracuse in the 2013 Sweet 16. Those Hoosiers were good enough to win the national title, and were clearly more talented than Syracuse. You can hold that against Crean. But upsets happen in March. This is not news.

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The Hoosiers continue to play hard. Crean continues to recruit extremely well. If Indiana’s administrators decide the school “needs a change,” they can expect thank-you notes from some Big Ten coaches.

Anybody who fires Crean ought to announce it in a Members Only jacket, confirming that the school thinks it is 1987. Back then, Indiana could call itself the best program in the country and it was hard to argue.

But today’s reality is that, while Indiana is still a great job, it’s not Kentucky or North Carolina. Michigan State has been the better program for almost 20 years. Ohio State and Michigan are just as alluring to basketball recruits. Wisconsin has been a Big Ten contender for as long as today’s high school seniors have been alive.

Indiana could try to finesse its way out of the Crean era by declining to extend his contract for the second straight season, increasing speculation and making him uncomfortable until he leaves. But this would be even dumber than firing him. It would set him up to fail, undermine the program and damage the school’s reputation in the coaching community.

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Smart schools stick with elite coaches. Look around the Big Ten. Michigan never wavered in its support of John Beilein, even when his team missed the NIT in two of his first three years and was struggling midway through his fourth season. Purdue was just as firmly behind Matt Painter when he missed the NCAA tournament two years in a row, while recruits from Northwest Indiana led other Big Ten programs past the Boilermakers.

Ohio State will miss the NCAA tournament for the second straight year and has won one NCAA tournament game since 2013, but it seems pretty clear that the school wants Thad Matta to lead the revival, not leave. It’s the right thing to do, but it’s also the smart thing to do. When schools with resources and recruiting reach support great coaches, good things happen.

Fans often fall into the trap of believing the wins are because of the school and the losses are the fault of the coach. That’s not how it works. A new coach such as Dayton’s Archie Miller might lead Indiana to national championships, but he also might flop.

Smart administrators understand that the bumps are just bumps; they are not the whole road. Indiana hired one of the country’s smartest coaches to revive its program once. His name is Tom Crean. Stick with him.

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