Sanctions. Uncertainty. And a roster filled with nothing.
When Tom Crean took over at Indiana in 2008, that’s what he inherited. He didn’t get the powerhouse Bob Knight had built in the 1970s and 1980s that was consistently among the nation’s best and feared throughout the land.
Hell, he didn’t even get the one Mike Davis had in his early years.
No, when Crean took over, Indiana was in the midst of the Kelvin Sampson scandal. The program would avoid the harshest of penalties, but the damage was done. And before Crean even had an opportunity to try to put the pieces back together.
That scandal left Crean with an incredibly young team heading into his first season. So young, in fact, that it ranked No. 343 nationally in KenPom’s experience metric. Exactly one spot above Mississippi, the youngest team in the nation.
Indiana’s program also wasn’t filled with the talent that fans enjoy during Knight’s tenure. In fact, Crean’s first roster was built almost entirely on its 2008 recruiting class, which featured just one four-star (of seven prospects) and zero top 100 players.
So, yeah. It was a rebuilding job.
And rebuild Crean did.
During the first three years under Crean, Indiana doubled its win total, rising to 12 wins by Crean’s third season. The team also improved substantially in the advanced stats, rising from No. 211 nationally to No. 82 in year three in KenPom’s metrics.
Then, finally, Indiana got its magic piece. In a huge recruiting win for Crean and his staff, Indiana landed five-star big man Cody Zeller. He was rated as one of the top players in the state and the No. 10 player in the nation by 247Sports.
Of course, Zeller would go on to become a legend in Bloomington. He instantly took Indiana from an improving Big Ten bottom-dweller to a legitimate NCAA contender.
In the following season, Indiana jumped to a 27-9 record in and followed it up with an even better 29-7 record in Zeller’s second season. During that run, the program also added another five-star recruit in Yogi Ferrell and two more top 100 players in Jeremy Hollowell and Hanner Mosquera-Perea.
Everything was coming up right for Crean.
By any account, Crean had done a masterful job in his first five seasons at the helm. Even if an underwhelming finish to the 2012-’13 season (a loss to Syracuse in the Sweet 16) and a dreadful first three seasons put a damper on things, it was hard to be too down. Indiana was winning games and recruiting at an elite level.
Unfortunately for Hoosier fans, that success would be short lived.
Indiana followed up its monster 2012-’13 with two massive flops. First, Indiana limped to a 17-15 overall record in 2014-’15 and then followed it up with a first round exit to the NCAA Tournament in the following season. And this was despite having a senior Will Sheehey and future NBA players like Yogi Ferrell, Troy Williams, and Noah Vonleh.
But Crean’s tenure would, ultimately, be defined by the following two seasons. Indiana scored a surprising Big Ten regular season title and Sweet 16 appearance in 2015-’16, but regressed into an NIT team at the close of this season.
Jekyll and Hyde.
Choose whichever you’d like. They’re all accurate. After Crean’s initial rebuild, Indiana has swung wildly between Big Ten title contender and bottom dweller. Even if you spend the time picking apart the last six seasons, it’s difficult to explain how a program was nationally elite in three seasons and mediocre in three others.
Now, Hoosier fans can certainly explain some of this. Youth and inexperience account for some of it and injuries for some of the other struggles. And some bad luck too.
But at a place like Indiana?
Yeah, not so much.
Every program is going to have its highs and lows, but at a place like Indiana, those highs and lows are a bit different. And for Crean, it’s hard to rationalize how a coach can miss the Tournament in two of the last four seasons and win outright Big Ten titles in the two other years.
It’s about as inconsistent as you can get.
And really, that will be what defines Crean’s tenure in Bloomington. It won’t be about the rebuild and it won’t be about those two years with Zeller. It’s going to be about the massive swings between success and failure. The kind of things that can bring down a coach, even if those highs are awfully darn high.
There’s no debating that what Crean did for Indiana’s program will never be forgotten. His Big Ten titles won’t be forgotten either. But at the end of the day, his legacy will be one of inconsistency, which will forever make him a unique character in Indiana history.