Can Tom Crean Coach? Four Experts Weigh In
Disgruntled IU basketball fans have made a meme of calling out Crean’s supposed struggles with X’s and O’s. But analysts and coaches have a different take.
A lot of prognosticators expected IU basketball—undersized, light on experience, and plagued by off-court issues—to struggle mightily this season. Instead, as the NCAA tournament nears, head coach Tom Crean’s bunch is battling in the Big Ten rankings and hoping for a trip to the dance.
For IM’s look at the rocky relationship between Crean and Hoosier Nation (“Seeing Red,” March 2015), we asked a panel of experts to tell us what they think of Crean’s coaching ability. Here’s what they said:
ESPN college basketball analyst and former head coach at Virginia Tech, South Florida, and Long Beach State
“He is a tireless worker. He’s passionate about what he does. He’s passionate about his players. He’s passionate about the game. And that passion is infectious.
“To me the key to coaching is putting your players in a position to be successful—not being married to a system, but fitting your system to your personnel. I think he’s done a fabulous job of putting his players in position. No post? No problem. They open up the floor, spread things out, force people to match up against them. Letting the players play to their strengths. Giving the players freedom but within a system.
“He does a terrific job of making in-game adjustments, because everything they do is predicated on matchups. So he’s got to see the matchup and figure out how he’s going to exploit the matchup.
“Defensively what he’s been able to do is, because they’re undersized, figure out who they’re going to double-team, how they’re going to double the post, how they’re going to guard the post, and they can change that within in a game. They’ve been known to start a possession in man defense and then go zone, or start a possession with zone and then go man, to disrupt the rhythm of the game, which buys them time.
“I think Tom sees the game. I know everyone sees his frenetic pace on the sideline, but that’s just who he is. That does not stop him from seeing the game. Every coach has got to coach within their own personality.
“Think about how comfortable he is; he’s got a staff of head coaches. [Associates Tim Buckley and Steve McClain and assistant Chuck Martin all have Division I head-coaching experience.] Few guys are comfortable enough in their own skin to hire a staff of all head coaches. He respects the input he can get from them. And he also can bounce things off them, because they’ve sat in his chair.
“One thing they’ve got to do is strengthen this [upcoming] recruiting class.”
“He understands the business of college basketball. He understands what he needs to do as a head coach. He surely understands what Indiana basketball means to the state. And it looks to me like his players are having a blast playing for him.
“I think that team is connected. I spent a bunch of time with them, and I think they really have a good trust. What they went through earlier in the season [with the player-misconduct issues]—I don’t want to trivialize it, but it could happen anywhere. It’s tragic and unfortunate, but I look at the kids on this team. He’s got good kids—genuine, sensitive kids. They all shared a common experience, they all care dearly about heir teammates, and they all care dearly about their program. You can’t play at Indiana and not have great ownership of what you’re doing, because you’re the focal point of your community and, in a lot of ways, the focal point of your state.
“One thing they’ve got to do is strengthen this [upcoming] recruiting class. They’ve got to build off the success they’re having, their playing style on the court, and sign a couple more players. It will become easier; it always is easier when a team’s playing well. They’re a team people can identify with. They’re a fun team to watch. You watch that team, and you want to play for them.”
Head coach at Butler; faced Crean this season and previously as the head coach at Gardner-Webb
“When you think about them, you begin with how hard their kids play. By no means is that a guarantee when you’re playing against another program. But with Indiana’s program, it’s a guarantee. Their kids always play extremely hard. They’re good on the glass, and they make effort plays. That’s what makes them, this year in particular, really hard to play against, because of how hard they play on both ends, particularly on the offensive end.
“What he has done a great job of throughout his career—and he and his staff have done an unbelievable job of this year—is to adapt to the personnel and utilize their strengths. He’s always played an aggressive, attacking style offensively, and this group typifies that. They can really spread you out, with their depth on the perimeter. He’s really turned what people would perceive as a weakness—their lack of size—into an advantage.
“Most teams when they’re attacking this particular Indiana team are probably going to try to look at attacking them inside, try to get to the free throw line. But you have to be careful about that as a coach if it’s not your strength as a team. Indiana has done a really good job of trying to keep teams off balance with their changing defense.
“We’ve all been armchair quarterbacks at one time or another, it’s just now there are more avenues to share those thoughts.”
“You have to understand that when you’re playing Indiana, a lot of times it’s going to be a game of runs, and you have to try to limit their runs and get on some runs of your own.
“I’m in a public position. I’ve always said there’s going to be undue criticism, and there’s going to be undue praise. In our business we all recognize that is part of it.
“It’s certainly part of the culture we live in, where you’re only 140 characters away from sharing an opinion about a particular play or player or coach. Listen, we’ve all been armchair quarterbacks at one time or another, it’s just now there are more avenues to share those thoughts.
Just like we would say, I’m sure they would say, ‘There’s a lot of season left to be played.’ But they’ve put together a fantastic season up to this point.”
Sporting News basketball writer and Big 10 Network analyst
“I look at Indiana basketball, and I think that when Tom came, he came into a situation that was an absolute wreck. There were a lot of people responsible for that wreck. None of it was Tom Crean. All of a sudden everyone was blaming him for the wreck. I remember being at a game [in 2010], two years in for Tom at that point. And it was buzzing around the pressroom, whether or not he was going to be able to survive. It wasn’t even an Indiana game, and we were talking about Indiana. I was astonished there were so many people talking about ‘if he’s going to make it.’
“The fact that he got it done in four years, that he had them to the tournament in four years, is astonishing. The fact that in year five they were going to the second tournament appearance for Indiana and winning the Big Ten championship, I don’t think he’s ever been given proper credit or appreciation for that.
“There were times when I thought Tom had made a mistake by taking players who were four-year guys, who weren’t going to make Indiana successful, that weren’t good enough to be good Big Ten players. And yet, I was wrong.
“You can’t question whether or not he has the ability. The track record is too long and includes too much success.”
“He went into the NCAA tournament and they had a bad game against Syracuse, and they either did not have a great game plan or did not execute their game plan well, and he gets criticized for that. And I understand it. It was not a great performance. I think that most college coaches understand what that was: a bad matchup. Syracuse was just the wrong team to play for that particular team. I predicted that Indiana was going to struggle. What you have to understand as a college fan is that sometimes you’re going to catch a bad break.
“All you have to do is look at winning the Big Ten championship in 2013 and what it required in order to win it, given that was the strongest Big Ten in probably two decades, going back to when Jimmy Jackson was at Ohio State. There were tremendous players throughout the league. Tom Crean took his team onto their courts, against their Elite Eight and Sweet 16 teams, and beat them, in what was a race for a championship that every single one of those players and every single one of those coaches wanted. So, how do you do that if you can’t coach?
“The questions about his coaching are ludicrous. I mean, coaching ability in general—can you question that? You can’t question whether or not he has the ability. The track record is too long and includes too much success.
ESPN college basketball analyst; former head coach at Bowling Green and interim head coach at IU
“Tom has always been a guy who has scouted well, very well, and he’s been a guy who puts his teams in good positions. I think Indiana is always prepared. I really do. I think they have a plan, and like with any coach, sometimes that plan, man, it’s really dialed in and it works, and sometimes the plan works, but the players don’t make shots or miss a block-out. Sometimes the plan just doesn’t work.
“There are always going to be criticisms, but from my point of view, they have done a great job preparing their team, putting their team in the right frame of mind to play. Whatever fans want to say, go ahead, but I’m just telling you from my point of view, I think he’s done a great, great job this year.
“The modern way to play college basketball is using guards, with high ball screens, good dribblers, good shooters, and Indiana has an abundance of that, with real quickness as well. They play the way modern college basketball is played. You’ve got to have a big, I know, but it’s not all that necessary if you want to win some games. I don’t know if they can win a national championship with it, but I don’t know if anybody can win a national championship this year besides Kentucky, anyway. But they make shots. Dangerous as hell, Indiana is.
“There is not a chance that Indiana will or should even think about getting rid of Tom Crean. Among people who really understand basketball, it’s a silly discussion.”
“Basketball has changed. You don’t see guys all that often moving and cutting off screens, you know, coach [Bob] Knight or coach [Gene] Keady offenses. You see really good dribblers, guys that understand getting into spots with the dribble. You see big guys pick-and-pop or pick-and-roll down the lane. It’s just different. And Indiana’s guys are well-suited for that. Between [Robert] Johnson and [Troy] Williams and [James] Blackmon and [Yogi] Ferrell, they’re all terrific one-on-one players. They’re unselfish, very good with the dribble, excellent pull up shooters. And if you’ve got that, you’ve got a pretty nice thing.
“And you’ve got guys coming in off the bench who Tom has put in a great mindset to come in and do their thing, which is shoot the basketball, whether it’s been Nick Zeisloft, Max Hoetzel, or Emmitt Holt inside. Those guys aren’t afraid. They contribute. They come in right away and become part of the action. That’s coaching, getting kids ready.
“People expected a complete flameout this season. And I just don’t see it. I said on my [radio] show before the season they’d win 22 games, and I got totally laughed at.
“The only thing I don’t really like is when they go to a zone at the end of possessions. Sometimes it gives up open shots.
“As a coach you always make yourself vulnerable when kids in your program are getting arrested. But in terms of, you’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do that, basketball-wise [in order not to get fired], I think that’s complete media speculation, media hype. Tom, up until the point where the kids had the problems they had, had done a masterful job. The academics are back up. The respect on campus for the basketball program, which in my opinion is huge, is back in order. Obviously the recruiting is back in order. But they did have a program that, with those arrests, particularly the situation with Holt and Devin Davis, that needed straightened out. I said I was embarrassed by it, and I was. But I think he’s handled it very well, and I certainly like how the team plays.
“IU’s player development is as good as there is in the country. You think about guys that came here, like Victor Oladipo—he walks out of here as the second pick in the NBA draft. Jordan Hulls—unbelievable career at Indiana, a kid that was barely recruited. You look at Christian Watford: He was a skinny guy—and he’ll be remembered forever. Hanner Mosquera-Perea has developed far beyond anything I thought he would—I thought he was terrible in high school—to the point where he is a serviceable Big Ten player. I don’t care what the recruiting rankings are. I don’t care what any crazy-ass fans say. I am stunned that he could be a serviceable Big Ten player, which is definitely what he’s become. That’s a testament to Crean.
“Indiana without a doubt has become again a very attractive place for a kid to go to college. I don’t think it was for awhile. The way they play on the court is fun.
“All I know is, if Indiana wasn’t prepared [for Syracuse in that 2013 Sweet 16 game]—well, guess what, Jim Boeheim’s done that to about 950 other opponents.
“It would be stupid [to fire Crean]. Crean should be the coach. There is not a chance that Indiana will or should even think about getting rid of Tom Crean. Among people who really understand basketball, it’s a silly discussion. With fans, you lose a game, and everyone should be fired; you win a game, and you’re the best coach ever.”
Hannah Hall contributed to this article.
Crean photo by Tony Valainis