Why haven’t the Indiana Hoosiers been able to parlay their resurgence under Tom Crean into more than a trip to the sweet 16 in the past two seasons? They’ve been in position to make it to the final four, having been seeded fourth and first in their regional, yet they haven’t gone deep into the NCAA tournament.
Indiana is a basketball-crazy state that produces a ton of talented players, and most of its residents would like nothing more than to suit up for the Hoosiers. Tom Crean has excelled in recruiting the state’s top players — last season he signed two five-star players, along with a four star and a three star, all Indiana natives — so having skilled-enough players to make a deep foray into March isn’t the problem.
The Hoosiers also play hard. Victor Oladipo was always willing to dive for loose balls, deflect passes, and rebound in traffic against bigger players. Cody Zeller ran the floor better than many guards despite being seven feet tall, and he loved to participate in the fast break even though it required him to cover more ground over the course of the game than other players.
Perhaps no player exhibited the team’s work ethic under Tom Crean than Jordan Hulls, who was just 6-foot-0, but made 49 percent of his three-point attempts and averaged 2.5 rebounds per game as a senior. The Hoosiers outscored opponents by 439 points with him on the floor, the best plus-minus rating for an individual player in the nation. Effort is never in question when Indiana takes the floor.
So if Indiana has really good players that play really hard, what could be holding the Hoosiers back? Poor game-planning and an infuriating inability to respond to the opposition’s game plan.
Tom Crean has been a head coach since 1999, but it still seems like he doesn’t know how to make a halftime adjustment, attack a 2-3 zone or scrap for forty minutes with Bo Ryan. His teams are finesse-based and he only knows how to win cute. Indiana can beat Michigan State and Ohio State on a given night because both teams are willing and able to run in transition with the Hoosiers.
MSU and OSU excel because, while they prefer to play transition games that force over-matched opponents to tap out early, their coaches have no problem winning ugly games; they teach their players how to play defense and grind. Indiana seems to fake like they play defense and fake like they will grind a came out, but only in the sense that you feel Tom Crean had them run through some drills in practice in order to say in an interview that he is proud of how tough his team is and how they’ve committed to defense. Once the lights come on in March, everyone realizes that they didn’t go into near enough depth regarding exactly how to play pressure defense or how to grind out a win.
When teams get into a full-court race against Indiana, Crean can cover up his deficiencies because his players can outscore almost any team in the nation. His teams get to the NCAA tournament because they overwhelm most opponents with their sheer athleticism and scoring ability. They can even win a couple games in the early stages of the tournament when they play teams that aren’t as skilled as them or have coaches that can go toe to toe with Crean in the bonehead game-plan department.
Once Indiana meets a team with similarly skilled players and/or a coach that can make adjustments above the third grade level, the Hoosiers find themselves on the wrong end of the scoreboard. By this point, teams believe that a NCAA championship is within reach, each possession becomes a life-0r-death affair, and coaching mistakes are more pronounced than ever.
It has to be painful for Hoosiers fans to know that they shouldn’t get very excited over their team’s regular-season success because a post-season letdown is always just around the corner. Indiana has phenomenal players that play hard, but the coaching staff doesn’t make strong game plans and struggles to make in-game adjustments, so the Hoosiers lose games that they ought to win.
Will this season bring more of the same heartache? It’s hard to say, because Indiana has such a young team with relatively low expectations. Perhaps that’s the recipe for success.