20 Questions: Is Indiana Slowly Getting Over the Hump?

Posted by rtmsf on November 10th, 2011

I. Renko is an RTC columnist.

Question: Is Indiana Slowly Getting Over The Hump?

Indiana has long been considered a college basketball “blueblood,” one of the top six programs in the sport’s history.  But over the past 15 years, its hold on that distinction has become increasingly tenuous.  Since 1994, the Hoosiers have advanced past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament just once, during a surprising run as a #5 seed to the 2002 national championship game.  That one shining moment aside, the last decade and a half has seen one disappointment after another :

  • The faded glory of the latter Bobby Knight years, which, by the time of his controversial departure in 2000, were distinguished mostly by NCAA Tournament flameouts and an exodus of key transfers.
  • The tumultuous tenure of Mike Davis, who, despite some early signs of turning things around, proved to be in over his head for a job with the pressure and expectations that Indiana brought.
  • The initial promise of the Kelvin Sampson era which soon imploded in a recruiting scandal that was a humiliating blow for a program that had long prided itself on doing things the right way.

Is Tom Crean Two Years Away From Competing at a High Level?

Which brings us to the Tom Crean era.  It is difficult to overstate the depths to which the Sampson saga plunged the Indiana program.  Crean inherited zero scholarship players in his first year at the helm.  As a result, Indiana fans, though no stranger to high expectations, have given Crean a long leash as he has worked on a multi-year rebuilding project.

So far, Crean has done just about everything right off the court.  He has embraced Indiana’s traditions and fan base, making them the centerpiece of his recruiting pitches.  He has been a vocal and outgoing representative of the men’s basketball program and university.  He and his family have immersed themselves in the campus community.  He has built and rejuvenated in-state recruiting networks to take advantage of Indiana’s tremendous talent base.  He has recruited high-character kids who represent the school well.  For all these reasons, Crean remains popular with the fan base.

Of course, at the end of the day, Indiana fans will demand achievement on the scoreboard and in the standings.  There, Crean’s progress has been slower, but steady:

  • 2008-09:  6 wins, #212 Pomeroy Rating
  • 2009-10:  10 wins, #183 Pomeroy Rating
  • 2010-11:  12 wins, #75 Pomeroy Rating

Although last year’s increase in wins was slight, that masks the more fundamental improvement reflected by the big leap in the team’s Pomeroy Rating.

This year, Indiana is reasonably expected to improve further, having lost just one scholarship player, guard Jeremiah Rivers.  The NIT should be within grasp, which will undoubtedly be an important next step in Crean’s rebuilding project.  But in order to take the bigger leap of a trip to the NCAA Tournament, the Hoosiers will need to improve considerably on the defensive end.  Last year, they struggled to contain dribble penetration and defend the post, and — relatedly — fouled too much and rebounded too little.  Whether Crean can match his off-court success in representing the program with on-court coaching acumen to get the Hoosiers to play better defense may be the key factor in deciding whether Indiana will get over the hump and back to meaningful March games this year.

And a Zeller Shall Lead Them?

But regardless of the specific outcome of this season, there is a more general reason to be optimistic that Indiana is slowly pulling itself over the hump over the long term:  Crean’s impressive recruiting haul for the 2011 to 2014 high school classes. Perhaps the most important of these recruits is incoming freshman Cody Zeller, a skilled top 20 big man who is reputed to be better and more well-rounded than either of his older brothers, Luke and Tyler.  He will be one of the big reasons that this year’s Hoosier team is expected to reach (some kind of) postseason. Zeller’s commitment was important not just because of his tremendous skill and ability, but also because of its psychological effect.  It restored the sense that Indiana was still the in-state powerhouse and, notwithstanding its recent struggles, a viable destination for the state’s best players.

That renewed sentiment has translated into broader recruiting success with Indiana-based players.  Crean has lined up a blockbuster 2012 class, led by three players who have been ranked anywhere from the top 15 to the top 40:  Yogi Ferrell (point guard), Hanner Perea (forward), and Jeremy Hollowell (wing).  The class is rounded out well by three-star recruits Ron Patterson (guard) and Peter Jurkin (center).  Crean also has an impressively early start on the 2013 class — with commitments from top 100 talents Devin Davis and Colin Hartmann — and 2014 class — scoring commitments from likely five-star forward Trey Lyles and sharpshooter James Blackmon, Jr.

This bevy of talent is enough to be confident that Indiana is “slowly getting over the hump.”  But just how slowly and just how far past the hump the team gets will depend on Crean’s tactical abilities and his development of individual players — two key variables on which the jury is still out.  That, in turn, will determine Crean’s ultimate fate.  Because as patient and loyal as they have been, at the end of the day, Indiana fans will not be content to just get over the hump by showing up at the NCAA Tournament.  They are hungry for more Big Ten championship trophies, Final Four runs, and, ultimately, that elusive sixth Championship banner — the kind of success that will restore their rightful place as one of college basketball’s truly elite programs.

rtmsf (3954 Posts)

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