Just last year Tom Crean was being praised. He was heralded as one of the top coaches in all of college basketball and being commended for the job he had done to rebuild the Indiana Hoosiers. He was the man solely responsible for dragging the storied program out of the utter mess that was left by Kelvin Sampson. And finally, after all the recruiting infractions, all the NCAA Tournament misses, all the frustration, things were back to normalcy in Bloomington.
After four years of struggling with recruiting restrictions and limited resources in terms of player talent, Crean brought the Hoosiers back to the NCAA Tournament in 2012 — the fifth year of his tenure. That season was special and served as the foundation for the Hoosier turnaround. Crean had recruited and developed an exceptional nucleus centered around the likes of Cody Zeller, Victor Oladipo, Christian Watford and Jordan Hulls. The team even produced the most memorable game of that particular college basketball season — a thrilling win over top ranked and eventual national champion Kentucky.
That win helped springboard IU to a Sweet 16 run. That season helped springboard IU to a No. 1 overall ranking to start the following season. Crean was entirely responsible. The Hoosiers were back not only amongst the Big Ten‘s elite, but the nation’s elite. The top recruits were again signing with Indiana, and the Hoosiers’ national reputation of excellence returned.
With the heightened expectations and hopes of a national championship in 2013 came both great joy and disappointment. Indiana was ranked No. 1 for most of the season and was widely thought of as the best and most versatile team in the country. Oladipo and Zeller were budding stars and future NBA Lottery picks. Watford and Hulls were experienced Seniors and knockdown three-point specialists. The team earned a No. 1 seed in the tournament, but eventually fell to Syracuse — like the previous year — in the Sweet 16.
The Hoosier faithful were angry — not only at the loss, but at the manner in which it was conducted. Going up against Syracuse’s daunting 2-3 zone is always a tremendous challenge. But at the same time, that defense can certainly be broken; and oftentimes it is by capable outside shooting teams like Indiana. However, the Hoosiers’ high-powered offensive attack was completely shut down and Crean and co. appeared to have no clue how to solve the zone. Furthermore, it looked as if they had never seen a zone. Ever.
Suddenly people began to forget about the great job the very energetic and passionate Crean had done in restoring order in Bloomington. That season, because of all the talent, came to be considered a failure. Whether it was fair or not, Indiana fans now viewed Crean as more of a terrific recruiter than as an overall quality X’s and O’s coach who could lead their team to a championship.
This season has only provided more of that notion. Having lost all four of his team’s main contributors, Crean was in a position where he needed to reload. And that’s exactly what he did. Yogi Ferrell and Will Sheehey were back but not much else. Crean assembled an outstanding recruiting class centered around consensus top 15 prospect Noah Vonleh. He added three other consensus top 100 players as well in Luke Fischer, Troy Williams and Stanford Robinson.
Fast forward to the latter part of what is now Crean’s sixth year in Bloomington, and the outlook is quite frankly gloomy. The Hoosiers are 14-11 overall and 4-8 in the Big Ten.
While it was completely illogical to expect great results out of this “rebuilding” Hoosiers team, nobody imagined a season like this. Fischer is no longer enrolled at Indiana and Williams and Robinson have been generally ineffective. Vonleh has proven to be the lone bright spot and only worthwhile recruit so far.
The problem is that Vonleh is a likely one and done. With Fischer’s transfer, Crean is down another player. Add in Sheehey’s impending graduation and this is essentially a wasted season. Outside of Ferrell, Crean and Indiana don’t offer a whole lot of excitement and promise these days, and yes, that is a cause for concern.
Tom Crean has done a fantastic job in repairing a broken program. The 47-year-old continues to attract top talent, but what he can do with that talent remains the question. Hoosier faithful won’t tolerate the word “rebuild” much longer.
Matthew Sturgeon is a College Basketball Writer for RantSports.com. You can follow him on Twitter @OfficialSturg27