By Derek Fisher
Survive and advance?
More like, struggle and aggravate.
Such is the frustrating reality for Indiana University men’s basketball fans this season. Blessed with roster talent rivaled only by Hoosier teams of lore, coach Tom Crean stumbles his way through game plans, matchups and adjustments; the outcome is occasionally brilliant, but largely inconsistent and underachieving.
Case in point: Sunday’s NCAA tournament third-round root canal against 9-seed Temple. Crean’s top-seeded Hoosiers played to the Owls’ pace, were massacred on the offensive glass, looked bewildered in the half court and let Temple’s Khalif Wyatt run amok without so much as a double team.
Indiana did prevail, thanks to a huge Christian Watford block, an equally-large Victor Oladipo 3-pointer and Temple going scoreless during the game’s final three-plus minutes, but it shouldn’t have. Temple pushed the Hoosiers — especially Cody Zeller, who continues to lack of any sort of grit — around all afternoon, and deserved to win. The Owls used their sharpest tools in the most opportune areas, won almost every statistical category and executed their plan, but simply let it slip away in the end.
The game was reminiscent, minus the favorable Indiana outcome, of Indiana’s earlier contests against Butler and Wisconsin. The Bulldogs out-toughed the Hoosiers, beat them to every loose ball, controlled the glass and beat then-No. 1-ranked Indiana. In two victories over Crean’s squad, Wisconsin did nothing more than be itself: It played defense, it rebounded and it dictated the tempo. Everyone knows what Wisconsin does — except Crean, it seems. In both cases, Indiana was so under-prepared it appeared as if it had been watching film of Wisconsin from the Stu Jackson era.
Of course, I’m not illuminating anything the unbiased and educated observer doesn’t already know. To watch Indiana basketball under Crean is maddening, to say the least. His offense, most of the time, appears to be an endless string of high ball handoffs, followed by either a too-late entry pass to Zeller, an un-screened for Jordan Hulls jumper or an Oladipo drive.
His defense generally is solid, except when he sags the Hoosiers into a 2-3 zone, often — inexplicably — against a capable shooting team.
And his rotations? In Crean’s world, I guess it makes sense to sub out Zeller and Watford for Hanner Mosquera-Perea and Jeremy Hollowell at the first media timeout, and to leave all five starters in the game late in an NCAA tourney blowout. To the rest of the basketball world, it does not.
The Indiana fanatics, of course, will digest none of this. They are too blinded by a return to prominence to see that Crean is little more than a politician, a slick salesman who recruits big names to Bloomington and gets them to play hard, but is extraordinarily limited when it comes to even basic basketball intellect. The fanatics are great at covering up glaring flaws with excuses and talk of how far the program has come, but instead of counting banners, those fanatics should apply some critical thought to the situation and flee the ship before it sinks.
Oh, and it will sink. If not against Syracuse, most definitely against Miami. Those two games might actually have taken on an air of winnability, had they been played in Indianapolis. They instead will be played in Washington, D.C., because Indiana choked on its own lack of urgency against Ohio State on March 5 and Wisconsin on March 16. It is highly doubtful the paying customers will be as accommodating, and the zebras as agreeable, in the Verizon Center as they would have been in Lucas Oil Stadium.
But on plods Crean, driving a Ferrari as if it were a dump truck and speaking in tired platitudes. During the Temple broadcast, it was mentioned that when it plays well, Crean likes to say his team played with ‘edge.’ When it does not play well, Crean postulates, it lacks this intangible and dubious quality.
I disagree. When Indiana doesn’t play well or loses, it is most often because Crean was outcoached. Period. There is too much talent and too much potential in that locker room to think otherwise. The Hoosiers’ performance isn’t based on some mythical energy or cliché, it is based on schematics, and Crean is at a decided disadvantage in that department.
Struggle and aggravate. It’s Indiana.
Derek Fisher may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter at @dfish615.