Getting off the proverbial hot seat is an easy enough task for a college basketball coach who’s been around the block enough times to know how to make such a thing happen. The bigger concern is staying off the hot seat. If a fan base has felt the need to question your job security once, there’s a good chance that it’s going to happen again, regardless of how much success has graced the years in between.
For Tom Crean, it’s difficult to distinguish the times when his job has been completely safe from the times when his fan base has been ready to ship him anywhere other than Bloomington.
The proud IU fan base wasn’t exactly thrilled when Crean churned out a 28-66 record over his first three seasons, but it was largely forgiven due to the sanctioned state of the program at the time he took over. It was completely forgiven in 2011-12 when the Hoosiers stunned top-ranked Kentucky on Christian Watford’s buzzer-beater and then advanced to the Sweet 16 before falling to the eventual national champions from Lexington.
That was supposed to be the start of Indiana’s resurgence, a period of time where they could forget about the previous decade and finally get back to adding some new banners to the group of five that has been hanging out in the rafters of Assembly Hall since 1987. It hasn’t exactly played out that way.
Indiana began the 2012-13 season as the No. 1 team in the country, earned a share of the Big Ten title and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, but was bounced in lopsided fashion by Syracuse in the Sweet 16. Issues both on and off the court plagued the Hoosiers for the next two seasons, as they lost 29 games and dealt with negative headlines that included citations for underage drinking, multiple failed drug tests, and an arrest for operating while intoxicated.
All that being the case, 2015-16 was viewed as something of a do-or-die season for Crean, even with a lofty buyout present in his contract. The head coach responded with a Big Ten regular season championship and a third trip to the Sweet 16 in five years. While that was more than enough to at least momentarily hush even the most vocal of Crean’s critics, it was still only acceptable because it was seen as a precursor to bigger and better things.
Nothing bigger or better has happened for Indiana in 2016-17, and it doesn’t seem like that’s going to change.
Despite knocking off Kansas and North Carolina in two of their first six games, the Hoosiers are rolling into the final stretch of the regular season sitting squarely on the wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble. IU is just four games over .500 and is coming off a lackluster performance against fellow bubble boy Michigan in which they were dealt a 75-63 defeat in front of an Assembly Hall crowd that was noticeably patchy.
The existence of conference tournaments provides the fan base of every underachieving team with a “if they can just ...” lifeline that exists until their team has been handed a final neutral-court loss in March. Even with that safety net fully visible, I feel confident in saying this: Indiana isn’t going to make the NCAA tournament. They might not make the NIT.
The Hoosiers have won just one road game all season, and four of their final five games will be played outside of Bloomington. They will not hear their names called on Selection Sunday, and that’s going to be a bitter pill to swallow for a success-starved fan base that saw their team ranked as high as No. 3 at one point this season.
Boiling all the issues at Indiana down into something as concise as “Tom Crean should absolutely be fired” seems like a route that’s both lazy and faulty. Having said that, piling up the myriad of Hoosier problems this season and shoving them all in the injury corner and moving on seems equally slothful.
OG Anunoby’s season-ending knee injury and James Blackmon’s lingering lower leg issue exist as an explanation for Indiana not being the Final Four contender it appeared they’d be in November and early December. They do not excuse the Hoosiers being 5-8 and destined to finish in the bottom half of a Big Ten Conference that is as weak as it’s been in some time.
Even if Blackmon and Anunoby had been sidelined for the entire season, there’s still too much talent on this Indiana roster to be in the position the Hoosiers find themselves in today. How exactly they got here is difficult to decipher, but Crean attempted to provide some insight after the Michigan loss.
“I’ve never coached a team with this lack of maturity when it comes to being able to respond and rebound from when things aren’t going well for them personally,” Crean said postgame. “That includes the teams that have won six or eight games. Thomas Bryant is working his tail off to become a leader of the team, but he needs a little more help. It’s a 19-year-old guy trying to find his own game and trying to lead a group of guys that really he should be getting a little more help from.”
While Crean’s critics were quick to write the words off as an embattled coach willing to try anything in order to deflect blame, Crean did exactly the opposite later in the same media session.
“I'm not shirking responsibility one iota,” Crean said. “It all falls on me. One thing I've learned in nine years, it all falls on me.”
The flip side of this coin is that Crean knew what he was getting into when he agreed to move his family to Bloomington nine years ago. Indiana has one of the most successful programs in the history of college basketball, as well as the rabid fan base that tends to go hand in hand with such fortune. Those supporters who enjoyed five national championships between 1940 and 1987 have now gone 16 years without seeing their team play in a regional final. It’s difficult to blame them for not being over the moon for a tenure that has seen three Sweet 16 appearances sprinkled in with six other seasons that have been, relative to Indiana’s standards, fairly dreadful.
The situation at Indiana is as complex as any in the country. Could anyone have done a better job than Crean in this spot over the last nine years? If the administration chooses to go in a different direction, could anyone do a better job than Crean would have moving forward? Can that person be convinced to come to Indiana? How much of a factor were injuries on this year’s team?
All of these questions are impossible to answer, which is why it’s so easy to be sympathetic to both sides. Everyone associated with Indiana basketball agrees that the program needs to return to the sport’s elite in the very near future. Nobody seems to know the best way to make that happen.