This all sounds very familiar.
Clear deficiencies with the Indiana basketball program raise the question: Will another trip to the Big Dance — even with a “road team” seed (meaning road jerseys are worn in the first round as a lower seed) save the coach’s job again?
Last season, Indiana struggled during various stretches, just as it has early in this campaign. IU limped into the tournament, but getting there instead of being re-routed to the NIT kept Crean from receiving the pink slip.
During Crean’s time in Bloomington, the Hoosiers have defined mediocrity. Now in his eighth season with Indiana, Crean has been to the NCAA Tournament three times. The first two trips did result in runs to the Sweet 16 with Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo. However, outside of those teams, last season was the only time a Crean-led Hoosiers squad reached 20 wins.
With a weak bottom half of the Big Ten this season, 2016 could be a second straight season marked by 20 wins and a bid to the Dance. However, despite another strong recruiting class, Indiana appears to be heading toward mediocrity again. The Hoosiers will struggle to be better than last season.
This leads to recognizable questions regarding the extent to which Crean must show improvement… and whether the status quo is enough to keep his job.
Under Crean, Indiana has struggled defensively over the past couple of seasons. The chemistry on that end of the floor is lacking, and players are not always helping each other. Similarly, players do not seem to be on the same page on the offensive end.
Much of this comes down to Crean’s ability to build a team. There is no questioning that he can bring in top recruits. However, he seems to struggle to draw in players who have the ability to play together as a team. The Zeller-Oladipo team had that ability, and that was when Indiana was a national contender. However, those two seasons were clearly the exceptions which prove the rule.
Such a reality leads to the question of whether Crean is still the man for this job.
So far this season, Indiana has been embarrassed by Duke by 20 on national TV in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, due to poor defense. In Maui, IU lost to Wake Forest and UNLV, a pair of under-the-radar teams. Wins over Creighton and St. John’s are a step in the right direction, but those two teams are a combined 12-6. Those are not high-value notches on the belt. In terms of quality wins, consider that Indiana under Crean is now (after the loss to Duke) 3-17 against the AP Top 10 teams when the Hoosiers are unranked.
The only losable game Indiana has before conference play starts is Notre Dame next weekend. Even with that being accounted as a loss, the Hoosiers will enter conference play at 9-4. With the Big Ten this season, 11 wins is not a stretch in the slightest. However, envisioning this team finishing in the top five in the conference seems like a reach.
Given this overview, Indiana will once again stay where it was last season, with barely 20 wins and a relatively low seed in the NCAA Tournament… unless a metamorphosis occurs which shakes this roster from the doldrums which have become depressingly common in Assembly Hall. (Come to think of it, each of the Big Ten’s Assembly Halls have not been happy places the past few seasons, given the struggles of Illinois.)
If the boosters and the administration are comfortable with the status quo and mediocrity, Crean will stay, provided that he fails to engineer a remarkable transformation in the coming months. If they are not, they will look at a reduced buyout, compared to what it would have cost if they had canned him last season.
Either way, the direction of Indiana basketball will soon be made clear. We’ll find out what the school is willing to accept from a once-great program which shows no tangible signs of regaining its place atop the Big Ten and the college basketball world.