(Tom Crean was tie-less—and with good reason—after Tuesday's loss to Loyola-Maryland.)
As the pages of this now-not-as-young IU basketball season have turned, it has suddenly become popular and even chic to criticize Tom Crean. Game management, recruiting, player development...it's all begun to come under scrutiny.
On the whole, this restlessness is likely born of a fanbase disgruntled at the prospect of having to endure another season tagged as "rebuilding," which was inevitable, regardless of what anyone might have originally believed.
On most nights, the Hoosiers were what they should have been, within the margin of error.
Tuesday night was not one of those nights.
Tuesday night begot questions that command answers. Tuesday night was a gutcheck of the highest order, in more ways than one, and it needs to be acknowledged and, to some possible extent, explained.
How, for example, does a team that beat Pittsburgh in Madison Square Garden fall behind to Loyola-Maryland by 24 points at home?
And how did it come to pass that Maurice Creek and Christian Watford each played the same number of minutes (11) in the first half, yet Watford took nine shots to Creek's one?
And what happened at game's end, when, after storming back from that 24-point deficit to take a three-point lead with 3:48 remaining, Indiana still fell by five points? Again, the home-court factor that Crean has championed in his 1 1/2 seasons in Bloomington comes up.
Crean said after the game that preparation before Tuesday had been encouraging, that he "wouldn't change anything." So what was lost in translation?
I've spent a full basketball season covering Tom Crean, and the first thing I'll tell you is that the guy knows how to sell his product.
I don't mean that in a bad way, quite the contrary, actually. He understands what fans want, what bosses expect, what the program needs.
When he trumpets his team's classroom performance—as he did on Twitter recently—it's because he understands how important that is to large segments of his fanbase, and he wants what his program is doing to resonate as much as possible.
Now, more than perhaps ever before, that kind of savvy is needed for a program whose lows are, clearly, going to be quite a bit lower than its highs are going to be high for the time being.
But there should also be frank moments, honest moments, when Crean simply sits down in front of the microphone and speaks truth to power.
You don't have to throw anyone under the bus. Good coaches know how to do that, how to be critical without singling out anyone.
Nights like Tuesday—when placing individual blame would do no good anyway, because there is plenty to go around—call for such introspection.
There were times last season, many times, when the Hoosiers lost simply because they were the inferior team, even (in some ways) against Northeastern or Lipscomb.
How could a team honestly be expected to play dominant, Big Ten basketball if it had never actually played in the Big Ten?
This year, things are clearly different. There exists immensely more talent and more depth, and the win over Pitt shows what this team is capable of accomplishing when it plays its best basketball.
Which makes the loss to Loyola, both in falling behind by so much and then by capitulating after storming back to take a lead at home late in the game, far more damaging than any of last season's defeats.
It doesn't mean that Crean is a terrible coach or a mistaken hire, or that the players he has recruited weren't worth their expected weight.
But it raises questions that require answers not recycled or repeated, but honest, thoughtful candor on where this program is, and where it soon might go.
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