It feels like only yesterday that Indiana Hoosiers head coach Tom Crean was on the figurative hot seat. The program was seemingly struggling, the shadows of Bob Knight were looming again because who knows why, and the idea that Indiana would be battling near the top of the Big Ten seemed like a novel written by H.P. Lovercraft.
That is all in the past now, though. Revisionist history will allow many to pretend as though his being on the hottest of seats never happened, but none of that actually matters. Crean is more firmly — though, I am not sure how firm — embedded at Indiana.
The 2016-17 season should be a good one for him, too. Thomas Bryant is returning, a few of the other Big Ten teams are somewhat rebuilding, and there’s very little reason to think the Hoosiers won’t make the NCAA Tournament. Hell, who knows… maybe they will even go on a little run while wearing a pair of dancing slippers.
That’s all immediate-future stuff. It is important, obviously, but the idea of a coach and what sort of long-term sustained success he brings to a program isn’t necessarily achieved only through victories on the hardwood. Sometimes, if not more often than not, the wins a coach gets on the recruiting trail are as telling as anything else.
Oh, hello there, Justin Smith — a four star-prospect out of the 2017 recruiting class, and an ESPN top-100 recruit.
The Hoosiers had, according to 247Sports, the 21st-best 2016 recruiting class. That is more than rock-solid, but considering expectations for Crean and Indiana are not to merely make the Big Dance but to make noise while in it, it can be viewed as an unremarkable class.
To be fair: That doesn’t mean it actually is unremarkable. It is merely a point of perception, which often drives our sports-related discussions. No. 21 is good for almost any of the other 300-plus Division I programs, but for IU it is fine. Not bad. Not great. Just fine. It can turn out to be great if the players develop greatly under Crean and all that jazz, but we don’t yet have the ability to travel in the future to see if that is the case. So, for at least right now, it is fine.
That does hint a subtle change in how Crean recruits, though.
The Hoosiers’ 2017 class is also starting to pick up steam in a similar fashion.
Indiana is currently ranked outside the top-30 as far as “rated classes” are concerned, but it is very early on in the process. Moreover, Smith is regarded as the type of prospect who could climb up recruiting service websites’ rankings, which in turn would increase the grade of Crean’s 2017 class. Plus, well, he can still recruit more players to the program.
None of that is the actual point, however. I will forever argue that we overvalue recruiting rankings, and that they are not always as strong indicator of how good a program will be moving forward.
What is important here is in the idea of what Smith represents: that Crean can still recruit at a high enough level to remain competitive in the Big Ten, but also that he appears to be taking a somewhat different approach than he has in the past.
When he originally took over the program, Crean would often land — or at least go after — one-and-done type of recruits. There’s nothing wrong with that, but a lot of them were so raw in their developmental stage that they could be NBA Draft-worthy, but they made no actual impact for the Hoosier while in college (hello, Noah Vonleh).
Smith isn’t predicted to be that type of talent. Yes, he has four stars attached to his name, but most project him to be a four-year player at Indiana. That’s four years of a top-100 player trotting about collegiate hardwoods for the Hoosiers. This is a good thing for Crean, as he very literally just saw what can happen when that happens. Yogi Ferrell — a four-year guy — helped the coach keep his job.
While we have no idea if this is a substantial shift in Crean’s approach to recruiting, or if this is just happenstance, Indiana is probably better served landing a Justin Smith as opposed to a one-and-done type. With the rest of the Big Ten nearly always building teams that end up being veteran-heavy, the Hoosiers should follow suit. After all, landing a prized teenager is great, but if it is just him going up against a bunch of men in their early twenties, and unless he is sincerely transcendent, it will all be for naught.
Indiana basketball, led by Crean, as hinted at by the landing of Smith and both the 2016 and ’17 class, appears to be quickly reinserting itself back into the realm of Big Ten hoops. Oddly, it is via Crean recruiting “lesser” players that he did when he was struggling.
This is as much about value as anything else. While it is obviously a case-by-case basis and there are TONS of exceptions, Smith is a value recruitment for the Hoosiers. He might not payoff dividends immediately, but if allowed to accrue his abilities into something mores special over a period of time, he — alongside others — should not only help keep Crean off the hot-seat, but put IU consistently near the top of the conference.