Here’s a flaming hot take to start this post: Tom Crean is a very good basketball coach. That might not sound that controversial, considering we’re talking about a coach coming off of an outright Big Ten championship, a conference coach of the year award, and a Sweet 16 appearance earned by defeating Kentucky.
But try carrying that take into the right segments of Indiana basketball Twitter (#iubb), onto the right IU message boards (godspeed), or into the right living rooms in small-town Indiana (like mine), and you’ll soon realize that a vocal portion of the team’s fanbase is more than willing to overlook all of Crean’s accomplishments as soon as they disagree with a lineup rotation.
Tuesday night, there were plenty of lineup rotations with which to be disappointed, as Indiana fell at home to No. 13 Wisconsin. The 75-68 loss is the third consecutive defeat for the Hoosiers, and though there’s plenty of time remaining in the season, it’s fair to wonder if the early-season highs (wins over Kansas and North Carolina vaulted Indiana up to No. 3 in the rankings before their loss at Fort Wayne) were the exception as opposed to the norm.
So, why the struggles? Those early wins weren’t exactly flukes, as the Hoosiers are a talented team and were expected to contend for a second consecutive conference championship. But there have been a few issues Indiana hasn’t been able to solve. Tuesday’s game was lost almost as soon as the ball was thrown up:
That’s not going to get it done, and there’s really no explanation. This was a home game on ESPN against a nationally ranked opponent, and you’re trying to avoid losing three games in a row. Combine all those factors, and you should have a team that wants to break down doors to get after it.
Having said that, Crean’s starting lineup did his team no favors. Electing to go with two guards to combat Wisconsin’s size, Crean started Josh Newkirk and James Blackmon Jr. over Rob Johnson. Johnson is Indiana’s most complete guard, yet Crean still seems to favor Pitt transfer Newkirk, which is baffling. The Hoosiers were left with just one reliable outside shooter in Blackmon and zero natural playmakers. That led to too many early turnovers, which is the other crippling feature of Indiana’s offense.
They don’t have a point guard at all, much less one capable of replicating the contributions of graduated senior Yogi Ferrell. Johnson is probably the closest Indiana has to a creative guard and once he entered, the game things calmed down:
Indiana ended up trailing by just one point at the half, a mark of a resilient team. They continued to play with Wisconsin throughout the second half, as Crean adjusted the offense to go with what was working: the inside game of freshman big man De’Ron Davis. But late, Crean fell back on another of his oft-criticized habits: poor substitution patterns.
Obviously players need rest, but Crean has an off-putting habit of pulling players who are playing well, while leaving players in who are playing poorly. It’s an inversion of the normal coaching psychology. Dan Dakich has noted this pattern before while doing color for Indiana games, and last night was no different. And things fell apart late after Crean made a similar decision, which was ultimately what did in the team:
And with that run, Wisconsin would put the game out of reach. They dominated the beginning and the end of the game:
Again, Tom Crean is actually a very good basketball coach, especially when it comes to management of a program. But the sort of commitment to analytical process that serves him well in recruiting and player development and (normally) game-planning seems to confuse things in-game. Crean struggles to get out of his own way at times, overthinking and getting too cute at times, refusing to take action elsewhere.
This Indiana team has time to recover. They’re still exploring their playing style, which makes sense. Last season, they featured four very good three-point shooters in major roles who are all either graduated or injured. That’s forced an adjustment to their spacing, and has left Thomas Bryant more vulnerable to double-teams. OG Anunoby is incredibly talented, but the slashing lanes that were there last season aren’t there anymore. Nor are the drive-and-dish dunks via the playmaking of an All-American point guard.
In the big picture, Tom Crean is actually the exact coach you’d want to be on the case. Last season, he helped make the adjustments that took Indiana from a team losing to weak competition in Maui to a team that won an outright Big Ten championship. Things will get better. But the damage has been done to Indiana’s tournament resume, and it’s very fair to question just how high this team’s ceiling really is:
Last year in March, in an effort to discount bad early season losses, Indiana fans often pointed out that how the team played earlier in the year bore little resemblance to the team that was entering the tournament. That might cut the other way this season, as those wins against Kansas and North Carolina might end up doing a lot of the heavy lifting for the Hoosiers when the selection committee sits down to seed the NCAA Tournament.
Indiana isn’t the team that lost to Nebraska last Wednesday, nor the team that gave up a 16-2 run to start against Wisconsin. They’ll hit more threes, they’ll turn the ball over less, and they’ll figure out a playing style to take advantage of their personnel. Those are all hallmarks of a Crean team, and he’ll deserve plenty of credit when that happens.
But it’s also not going to be easy for this team to win close games against good competition, because Crean’s game management just doesn’t max out his team’s chances. Odd lineups, poor timeout usage, confused possessions, and a continued loyalty to players who haven’t earned that on the court are also hallmarks of Crean’s tenure at Indiana. That’s fine with a deep, veteran team, but this group has no seniors aside from the injured Colin Hartman. That youth means the in-game coaching is going to matter, and it’s going to have to be better than it was last night.
Tom Crean is a very good coach. He’s not getting fired, and his seat isn’t even close to lukewarm. But Indiana has to get things turned around very quickly. Illinois comes to Bloomington on Saturday, and losing three straight conference home games would be an unthinkably poor stretch, the kind of stretch that starts to bring the bubble into the conversation.
We’ll see if Crean can make the right adjustments on and off the court.