As coach Tom Crean heads into his fifth season at Indiana, he’s taken the Hoosiers from a 6-25 last-place team to a preseason national title favorite. The big jump came last season, when IU made its first Sweet 16 appearance in a decade while finishing 27-9 on the year.
At the heart of Crean’s success has been his ability to get the most out of unheralded players. Of the five starters in December’s upset of eventual champion Kentucky, only two were rated higher than 3 stars as recruits, but all five made vital contributions for last season’s Hoosiers.
Read on for more on Crean’s ability to nurture unheralded talent and nine more keys to Indiana’s return to national-power status.
For all that the Hoosiers were Big Ten bottom-feeders for Tom Crean’s first few seasons, the conference did help the struggling team in one respect.
With the balance of power atop the league shifting so often—five different teams winning or sharing the title in the last five years—there was no single 500-lb gorilla dominating the recruiting scene and keeping IU from having a chance to recover.
Contrast that situation with the SEC, where Florida and Kentucky have stayed so far above the rest of the league that bouncing back from a bad stretch has been a nearly impossible task.
The Big Ten may be a tough conference to win in, but it hasn’t been nearly as daunting from a recruiting perspective as it might have been.
Given Indiana’s daunting hoops tradition, it wouldn’t have been surprising if Tom Crean had been put on a short leash when he arrived in Bloomington.
Instead, athletic director Fred Glass and the boosters stayed the course through three sub-.500 seasons and were rewarded with last year’s 27-9 explosion.
By giving Crean time to bring in players who fit with his approach, the Hoosiers have gained a stable foundation that should keep them competitive over the long haul.
Even if 2012-13 doesn’t bring the hoped-for national championship, Crean’s steady program building efforts should have them back at the top of the rankings soon enough.
Dating back to his time at Marquette, Tom Crean’s teams have earned a reputation for gritty man-to-man defense. It’s taking the Hoosiers some time to get up to speed on that end of the floor, but Crean’s approach is starting to produce results.
In Crean’s first season, the team was allowing a worrisome 70.5 points per game, but Crean has managed to chop that figure down to 66.4 for 2011-12.
That figure still left IU 10th in the conference, but it’s no longer so far from the rest of the field as to keep the Hoosiers from competing with league foes.
No matter how bad things have been for Indiana, the Hoosiers’ fans have stood by them. Even the worst IU teams of the last decade have been able to make Assembly Hall a tough place to win with the help of the always-vocal crowds.
In Tom Crean’s first (and worst) season, five of Indiana’s six wins came in Bloomington, and the team has only gotten better at home in the years since.
Little wonder, then, that last year's breakthrough performance saw the Hoosiers go 18-1 on their home floor, even beating mighty Kentucky in December.
Coach Kelvin Sampson’s departure prompted some of his players (notably Jordan Crawford) to transfer, but after that initial exodus, Tom Crean has done an excellent job of keeping his players around for four years.
While there’s something to be said for having the kind of transcendent talent that’s guaranteed to leave early for the NBA, Crean’s ability to hold on to his players has helped the Hoosiers gel into a more cohesive team.
Obviously, Cody Zeller is likely to break that streak after 2012-13, but even he has stuck around for his sophomore year with a squad that now has a great shot at a national title.
As Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb reminded the nation last year, even the best freshmen can benefit from having a core of players around them who know how to win as a group.
For several years prior to Tom Crean’s arrival in Bloomington, the Hoosiers did a fine job on the national recruiting scene but often ignored their own backyard.
With the exception of one-and-done Eric Gordon, few Indiana natives made a splash for their home-state school in that period.
In 2011-12, on the other hand, the heart of the roster featured Cody Zeller (Washington, IN), Jordan Hulls (Bloomington, IN) and Daniel Moore (Carmel. IN).
Crean also cleaned up in 2012’s loaded in-state recruiting class, hanging onto a trio of 4-star prospects led by Park Tudor’s Kevin “Yogi” Ferrell at point guard.
Even as Indiana has added some genuine star power, the Hoosiers haven’t been a team that can be stopped by locking down one elite player.
IU has put together a balanced roster that featured four double-digit scorers a season ago (and three such scorers in the previous year, even without Cody Zeller around).
That pattern isn’t likely to change in 2012-13, when standout freshman Kevin “Yogi” Ferrell will arrive to run the point.
With plenty of weapons returning, Ferrell should have little trouble stepping into Verdell Jones III’s shoes and creating opportunities for everyone in his first season in Bloomington.
As much as freshman star Cody Zeller meant to the Hoosiers’ Sweet 16 run, a factor that can’t be overlooked in IU’s success is that Zeller and his recruiting classmates didn’t have to win by themselves.
The Hoosiers had loads of Big Ten experience already on the roster—highlighted by senior PG Verdell Jones III—helping to smooth the road for the youngsters.
Jones, of course, is gone for 2012-13, but the same trend will key Indiana’s title hopes next season. Among the Hoosiers’ rising seniors are four-year starter Christian Watford at PF and three-point marksman extraordinaire Jordan Hulls.
Frontcourt stars Cody Zeller and Christian Watford were Indiana’s most dangerous weapons a year ago, but they were far from alone.
One of Tom Crean’s most impressive feats as IU coach has been finding ways to maximize the productivity of his role players, especially the ones without elite high school pedigrees.
Aside from being key contributors to last year’s Sweet 16 squad, Victor Oladipo, Jordan Hulls, Verdell Jones III and Will Sheehey shared another common trait: all were just 3-star recruits when they arrived in Bloomington.
The fact that all four have grown into such valuable players is a testament to Crean’s willingness to stick with a player over the course of his college career.
Tom Crean accomplished a great deal in laying the foundation for 2011-12’s success, but there’s still no substitute for sheer talent at the highest levels of college hoops.
That’s why Crean’s ability to keep stud recruit Cody Zeller in-state—especially after older brother Tyler left for North Carolina—meant so much to last year’s team.
The 6’11” Zeller gives every indication of being a future NBA star, and he averaged 15.5 points and 6.6 rebounds per game as a Hoosiers freshman.
As long as Crean can keep supplementing his outstanding groups of role players with occasional 5-star gems like Zeller, Indiana basketball will be just fine.