When Tom Crean stepped into the tire fire of Indiana University’s basketball program in 2008, he was signed to a 8 year contract. The thinking at the time was that everyone knew it was going to take some time before the Hoosiers were back in the NCAA tournament. Forget about the Final Four, IU was down to its final four players at the time. Then Crean kicked off two more players and his contract was extended. Patience was the word of the day.
However, not everyone knew what some time really meant. Most Hoosier fans I spoke with felt like the first two years were gimmes, but by year three at the very least IU should be back in the NIT, year four in the NCAA tournament, and year five back to competing for a B1G 10 Title.
While the play on the court didn’t do much for Hoosier fans, the recruiting certainly did. With players like Cody Zeller, Hanner Perea, Yogi Farrell and others all the way down through the class of 2014, the table looked well set for IU. Now they just needed to take the next step on the progression. Win some games they shouldn’t, avoid the embarrassing losses, and make the NIT.
But early season losses to Northern Iowa, Colorado, Penn State and Iowa have started the murmurings, however faint that maybe Crean won’t be the guy to get IU back to prominence. The players were blasted early last week for their lack of mental toughness. Former coach Dan Dakich suggested some of them(none named) need to transfer to a smaller school, which announcer Don Fischer endorsed. The complaints about Crean’s style of play, the teams poor preparation leading to early deficits, there were enough complaints to make one wonder why IU even hired Crean in the first place.
Hoosier fans admittedly aren’t the most patient people in the world, but is it too much to ask that you can beat Iowa by year 3?
The win against Illinois quited the critics somewhat, and the game effort in East Lansing will further beat back some of the attacks, but it will be an interesting off season if IU is not able to summon 5 more wins and make the NIT this year.
This leads to the question, is it fair to criticize the rebuilding process? Absolutely. However, it’s important to always keep it in context, even if everything was done perfectly, IU would not be competing for an NCAA tournament slot this year.
I’ve looked at three fairly big programs which have each endured some hard times recently and how they rebounded from not making the tournament. What I found was there really isn’t a set bounce back plan. Every situation is unique and it will unfold in a myriad of ways.
Purdue had a brilliant plan, as Gene Keady had reached the age where he was set to retire, the Boilermakers hired Matt Painter a year a head of time. This gave Painter a chance to recruit before actively having to take over the reigns. In Keady’s last year, Purdue went 7-21. In Painter’s first year as head man, the team went 9-21. Carl Landry got hurt early in this season, and the Boilers were never able to seriously challenge anyone inside. An inexperienced team, with 5 freshmen earning major minutes, Purdue went 3-13 and finished last in the Big 10. The next season, with Chris Kramer and Keaton Grant, along with a healthy Carl Landry, Purdue rebounded to go 22-12 and make it to the 2nd round of the NCAA tournament.
The Ohio State University’s fall was not as severe, and it didn’t take as long to recover. In truth, it simply took firing Jim O’Brien and hiring Thad Matta. Matta took over the Buckeyes in 2004 after O’Brien had been fired for going 14-16. In Matta’s first season, OSU went 20-12, but was relegated to the NIT due to an odd NCAA committee selection elevating 7th place Iowa over Ohio State(who finished 6th) and Indiana(who Mike Davis memorably tells us finished 4th.) The Buckeyes were in the dance the next year and two years later were playing in the National Championship game.
The final team I looked at hasn’t quite made it back yet. And Bearcat fans will undoubtedly curse me for jinxing their effort this year, but I’d be surprised if UC doesn’t make it back. Mick Cronin took over the UC program in 2006. UC, like Indiana had a number of difficulties involving a coach, an administrator and a fractured program. Despite success as an interim coach, UC did not hire Andy Kennedy which fractured the fan base further still. Instead it hired Cronin who duct taped together his first roster with a talented freshman from Indianapolis, and a number of junior college players and leftover talent. The Bearcats struggled and went 11-19 the first year and 13-19 the next. But when the Cats went 18-14 and made it to the NIT in Cronin’s third year, the fans thought they had turned the corner. The Bearcats added talented freshman Lance Stephenson and the fans were even more excited. But UC struggled down the stretch and couldn’t win enough games to qualify for the NCAA. Instead it was a second trip to the NIT. Many thought that 4 years was enough, with the two leading scorers leaving, there was no chance for the team to make it through the brutal Big East and actually make the tournament. But at 18-4, UC is looking like a good bet. Even if they don’t make the tournament, they turned out to be much better than anyone thought this year.
What does this prove? Nothing. But I think sometimes fans get lost in their own benchmarks that they lose sight of the final prize. Just because IU’s players didn’t improve as much as we’d like last year doesn’t mean they won’t this year. Just because we didn’t reach step three on the progression to the NCAA tournament doesn’t mean we can’t leapfrog into it next year.
Of course none of this explains why Oladipo doesn’t get in for the last 13 minutes tonight.