Indiana's fallout from Kelvin Sampson wasn't pretty and it took Tom Crean three full seasons before he was able to turn the Hoosiers around in his fourth year in Bloomington. While the return of the Hoosiers was definitely the end result of Crean rebuilding a decimated program, the team ultimately fell short of their goal of winning a title in 2013. Not only that, but their loss in the Sweet 16 was a bit of a surprise, as the Hoosiers were widely considered one of the best (if not the best) teams in the country throughout most of the season.
Following up the premature end to the 2013 seasons, Crean saw his Hoosiers struggle down the stretch last year and miss the postseason. A season highlighted by mortifying losses, like losing at home to Northwestern and Penn State, has created some serious questions for Crean and the Hoosiers. And while I think this season should see Indiana back in the postseason, there are still plenty of questions heading into November for the Hoosiers.
Roster turnover a reason for concern?
No one is going to fault Noah Vonleh for declaring early and entering the draft and his decision isn't the end result of some sort of problem with the Hoosiers, but rather the reality that Vonleh is ready to earn some serious money playing basketball professionally. The end result for Vonleh leaving early definitely panned out for the departing freshman as he ended up landing ninth in the draft. While having one of your top recruits come and go after a season has became relatively common in college basketball, seeing a slew of transfers from underclassmen following a disappointing season is a bit more problematic.
In what has been a recent transfer epidemic in the state of Indiana (something Purdue has dealt heavily with), the Hoosiers saw a handful of players decide to leave the program this offseason. The turnover started early, with sophomore forwards Austin Etherington and Jeremy Hollowell announcing their intent to depart in March. Following in the footsteps of Etherington and Hollowell was Peter Jurkin, who also announced his departure over the summer. While none of the three players who transferred were considered major losses (with Jeremy Hollowell being the biggest loss of the three), having a trio of players leave is never the best sign.
Even more so when you realize the program already saw Luke Fischer leave the program in December, as well as two other players transferring out the year before. When it comes to marquee programs there's usually some turnover, especially when guys realize they may have to go elsewhere to pick up minutes on the floor. However, Indiana's recent struggles to retain their recruits could be a potential harbinger of more serious issues if it continues to go on.
The unfortunate "Hot Seat" distraction
More often then not it's never good for your coach to be on the hot seat. The added scrutiny and pressure to win has a tendency to make smaller issues look like bigger problems and creates an unwelcoming distraction for the team in general. And the reality is Tom Crean, warranted or not, is approaching the dreaded hot seat.
One bad season shouldn't essentially throw you onto the hot seat, but the Hoosiers faithful expect a winning program and their standards are about as high as you can get. It'd be unfair to hold Creans early struggles here against him when you take into consideration the mess he inherited, but it is safe to say that many people thought Indiana was capable of competing for a title in 2013, only to fall considerably short of that goal. After two promising seasons ended prematurely, seeing Indiana miss out on the postseason entirely definitely didn't sit well with fans that weren't exactly pleased already with the Hoosiers not getting past the Sweet 16 in back to back seasons.
The reality of the situation is the anti-Crean crowd predominantly exists on comment sections and social media. The problem is that this crowd of fans still exists and if the program misses out on the NCAA Tournament, especially if it happens because of losing numerous games to inferior opposition once again, it will only continue to grow. Crean's early struggles in Bloomington were justifiable because of the mess stemming from Kelvin Sampson and the recruiting violations that had taken place here. However, Crean has rebuilt the program and has brought in some strong recruiting classes. There's no longer any excuses for Crean, the end result of this season will ultimately come down to how well he coaches. And while I think Crean should be safe, the unnecessary talk of him being on the hot seat will only add more pressure for Indiana as they try to bounce back in 2014-15.
Like mentioned above, the Hoosiers had three transfers during the offseason and another during the actual season. They also saw star Vonleh depart early for greener pastures in the NBA. Losing five players would be tough but the bleeding didn't stop there as the team has four players graduating (Evan Gordon, Jeff Howard, Taylor Wayer and Will Sheehey), as well as a walk-on heading elsewhere. Oh, and back-up Collin Hartman may be a no-go this season as the forward tore his ACL in March.
So what's left on the roster? Zero seniors. A junior transfer from Illinois State. A junior walk-on transfer from Division II Bellarmine. Seven freshmen. A sophomore that might not be healthy for the season. And only two players that averaged more than 20 minutes per game last season (Yogi Ferrell and Troy Williams).
Luckily for the Hoosiers there's a ton of talent in Ferrell and Williams and their 2014 recruiting class includes two studs in James Blackmon Jr. and Robert Johnson, but it also means their season will likely come down to how quickly their freshmen and back-ups can get up to speed. Or in other words, if there are growing pains for Blackmon and Johnson, or if the backups don't hit the ground running, then this could be a very, very long season.
The Big Ten is becoming more difficult
Last season the conference beat up on each other and commonly saw bottom dwellers knock off the teams in the chase for the conference title. On one hand the balanced nature of the conference does mean almost any game is winnable, on the other hand it means there are no guaranteed wins and everything is a challenge. For a program with a very thin rotation, lack of experience and a very young roster, that could be detrimental.
Teams like Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan State should all handle their own once again in the Big Ten, but now the Hoosiers will also have to deal with rising Iowa and Nebraska programs, as well as the addition of a formidable foe in the Maryland Terrapins. Teams like Minnesota and Illinois have been working their way back to relevance and even schools like Northwestern seem to be making progress. There are going to be no gimmes this season and the tough schedule means it's going to be difficult to post an impressive conference record. That means the Hoosiers will need to record some quality wins early in the season. And while they'll have the opportunity to do so as they face SMU, Pittsburgh, Louisville, Butler and Georgetown, it makes these games extremely important as too many losses prior to the conference opener versus Nebraska could put Indiana in a serious hole.
Is Tom Crean the best answer for the Hoosiers?
No one is going to short change what Crean has done in Bloomington to rebuild the program. Well, maybe some irrational Hoosiers fans and a decent amount of Boilermaker fans, but they're simply misguided. Crean inherited a trainwreck and has done a nice job of turning the historical powerhouse around. The problem is it sort of feels like the program has possibly plateaued under Crean. Two years ago Indiana was ranked #1 in the nation and spent most of the season considered to be the nation's top program. Then they lost in the Sweet 16. It seems like even when Indiana has been very, very good, the team simply hasn't been capable of emerging as the dominanting force they should be.
The problem with that is the program fell off a cliff last year and it exposed plenty of problems with the team under Crean. First off, Crean's rotations and substitutions aren't always the best decisions. Then you have issues like the teams continued struggles with zone defense. It also feels like at times Crean struggles with adapting mid-game to what opposing teams bring to the table, commonly failing to make the necessary changes to overcome any adversity.
While the Hoosiers program should be successful with Crean as their coach, the programs fan base will want more than a pair of Sweet 16 appearances. If Crean can't get this team over the hump in the near future then there's going to be a lot of murmuring and controversy over if he should go or not. And the reality is potential coaching turmoil not only effects the team, but makes things considerably trickier when trying to recruit players.