December 4, 2008

Indiana, Our Indiana

This is my brain on sports, so we may as well get it out of the way.

Indiana finally filed away the Bob Knight era with the hiring of Tom Crean, after two false starts with Mike Davis and Kelvin Sampson. Davis had the unenviable task of following the legendary, popular coach pushed out against his will. In spite of having the support of his players, Davis was in no way ready to take over a major college program, much less one as high profile as Indiana. After the merciful end of the Davis reign, IU went for a high profile coach in the form of Kelvin Sampson. Sampson was a go-getter (he had made his mark previously at Oklahoma) with a reputation of "doing what it takes" to win. He was hired in spite of being under investigation by the NCAA for recruiting violations. He was sentenced for those violations upon taking the job at Indiana. And (surprise!) he was caught again while at Indiana. The specifics aren't important; suffice to say that Indiana got what they bargained for, and in the process, sullied the squeaky clean reputation the University has built over the course of becoming one of the top 5 (or at least top 10) all-time college basketball programs.

Facing stiff penalties, Indiana responded by imposing stiff penalties on itself. Oh, and by buying out Sampson. New coach Tom Crean, a Tom Izzo disciple and native Michigander, was hired soon thereafter. Crean, besides being associated with Izzo and Ralph Willard (Western Kentucky), distinguished himself as both a recruiter and strategist: Izzo gave him a large role running the team, and Crean is credited with tipping the recruiting balance in Michigan from Michigan to Michigan State. IU gave Crean a fairly standard five-year contract, but Crean found that the mess Sampson left behind was a bit more substantial than originally thought. After immediately (but quietly) getting a contract extension to 10 years, Crean decided to dump the entire team and start over again completely from scratch (well, almost - he had two non-scholarship players left from Sampson's squad). This fall, after reviewing the Sampson violations, the NCAA decided not to impose any further sanctions on IU, letting their own self-imposed sanctions stand along with three years of probation. Apparently, the NCAA felt the comprehensiveness of Crean's house cleaning was enough. Sampson was not as lucky: the current Milwaukee Bucks assistant was hit with a five-year "show cause" order, which means any team hiring him within that period would have to show that he has served a reasonable punishment for his transgressions.

The actions taken by both Crean and the NCAA were proper in this case. Crean had standards for which none of the returning players were being held accountable, so he decided to start over with players that were down with his program. The NCAA didn't hold IU blameless, since they hired Sampson with their eyes open, but did realize that they had cleaned up the mess on their own, so no new penalties were imposed. So here's Tom Crean, with a fresh 10 year contract, a fresh start, and an elite program. Sure, he's starting from the bottom, but he's won over the IU faithful, and the world is his oyster.

Or is it? In a recent ESPN sports panel bitchfest, Skip Bayless and L Z Granderson both opined that Tom Crean was not going to bring IU back to the elite level which it enjoyed previoulsy under Everett Dean, Branch McCracken, and Bob Knight. The reasons? Well, they were foggy (logic is a rare commodity on these shows), but they seemed to organize roughly this way: Tom Crean is a decent though not great coach, he has not caught up with the times and can't deal with the modern college game, he does not have a fertile recruiting ground to work (that was L Z Granderson, urban hoops maven, on that one). Hmm. Let's think about this for a minute.


In reverse order: He does not a have a fertile enough recruiting ground. Hmm. Allow me this: ???!!! OK, so I'm a bit of a homer, but surely Indiana would qualify as a fertile recruiting ground. Do the names Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Luke Harangody, Josh McRoberts, Rodney Carney, Tyler Zeller, Eric Gordon, Robbie Hummel, Courtney Lee, Dominic James, or George Hill mean anything? You guessed it - they were all recruited out of Indiana high schools within the last five years. This list is far from comprehensive: a couple of minutes with Google would triple this list. Let's not dwell on this: not only can you get decent players from Indiana, but you could put together a championship squad completely from Indiana players.

How about "he can't deal with the modern game"? Now, this is interesting code. Essentially what they are saying is that Crean doesn't seem likely to deal with the new breed of "one and done" players (players who do the required minimum one year college before moving on to the pros) be they big ego "questionable character" guys like Gordon or O J Mayo, or "character" guys like Oden and Conley. Crean hasn't really addressed this issue publicly, but there is plenty of evidence that he is an old school coach who wouldn't recruit a player without at least a three year commitment. Obviously, character is an issue with him as well, but we are a little too quick to dismiss flashy, sometimes immature high school kids as "questionable character" guys (O J Mayo, for instance, in spite of the shady dealings that surrounded him at USC, is probably a decent kid). I'm sure that more than a few people dissed Crean's Marquette star Dewayne Wade in a similar fashion, but nothing was further from the truth. It's also true that even the most rigid of coaches will flex their game a bit to accommodate uncommon talent, as Crean did with Wade, or as Knight himself did with Isiah Thomas.

The second assumption encoded herein is that the only way you will have a shot a the biggest prize is with a collection of high level talent that needs to be, at least to some degree, rented and coddled. Let's call this the Memphis Theorem, with its antithesis being the Butler Theorem (or the Gonzaga Theorem, if you object to my homerism). Now, once again, it doesn't pay to associate "questionable character" with the Memphis subset (I'm a big Derek Rose fan), but there is a different modus operandi at work here, which also translates to different methods, though not as different as it may seem on the surface - witness this year's experienced Notre Dame squad, without a lot of elite talent, who doesn't ever see a shot it won't take. The Butler Theorem describes a team-oriented style which calls for the players to sublimate their games to the greater good. Once again, this is an orientation, not necessarily a rule - Memphis actually played together very well as a team most of last year.

Actually, the whole distinction is a bit bogus. Good teams win, period. Some teams have a higher level of athleticism, can run a faster game, and afford a few more mistakes. Other teams have to rely more on schemes and discipline to maximize their potential. The bottom line is that a national champion needs a good coach, dedicated players, good schemes, and a pretty fair level of talent. The thing that separates teams is how they utilize the talents they have. One way is to get the absolute best players available and more or less turn them loose in a scheme that has defined limits, but room for improvisation within those limits. The other is to build a team that has experience, interchangeable parts, and a good collective basketball head that cuts down on errors. Either way works, and like I said, a truly great team needs a good dose of both approaches.

Back to the coded comments of our goofball commentators. The assumption here is that the Memphis Theorem is ultimately the guiding light toward a national championship, and that Crean ascribes to the Butler Theorem, so he doesn't have a chance. Well, in the next year or so, we will see a Matt Painter Purdue team crash into Final Four with a real chance to win the whole thing. With the exception of Butler itself, who better delineates the Butler Theorem than Matt Painter and Purdue?

On top of that, Bayless tossed out a comment along the lines of "well, he'll compete for the Big Ten championship on a consistent basis, but not for the national championship". The Big Ten has been down a bit in the tournament lately, but since when is the Big Ten champ not a contender for the national title?

Which leaves us with the first point: Crean is a decent though not great coach. This indictment would include his ability to motivate, his ability to recruit, and his ability to scheme. Oh, and his ability to deal with the alumni (see Davis, Mike and Sampson, Kelvin for marvelous negative examples). Last point first: so far he has the alumni eating out of his hand. He's brought the former stars back in for the first time since Knight's departure, and they have been loud public character witnesses for him. As far as his ability to scheme, he has shown fair talent in that area with some of his Marquette teams. He also seems to be a master motivator, although even the best can see their messages go stale if they are not adaptable. As far as recruiting, the publications like what he has done so far, but the ultimate test of recruiting is on the court, not in the papers, so that remains to be seen. He seems to have everything to be a good college coach, but can he be great?

I used to think that Crean's bud Tom Izzo was a good-but-not great coach. I was clearly wrong about that. And, as an added bonus, it seems that Crean was a major contributor to the effort that changed my mind about Izzo. Finally, there is no coach he resembles (physically, even!) as much as Tom Izzo. Obviously the jury is out on Crean, and will be for at least three more years, but I like what I see, even (especially?) if what I see is a lot of Tom Izzo.

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