BOZICH | The Circus has returned to Indiana basketball - WDRB 41 Louisville News

BOZICH | The Circus has returned to Indiana basketball

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Tom Crean's Indiana basketball team has lost eight of 13 Big Ten games. (Associated Press photo.) Tom Crean's Indiana basketball team has lost eight of 13 Big Ten games. (Associated Press photo.)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Nine teams have delivered two victories against opponents ranked in the current Associated Press Top 25.

Five compete in the bloodbath known as the Big 12. Add Butler, Oregon and Virginia, all ranked, to the glorious list.

Then there is the team that reads like a misprint in this discussion -- Indiana.

Eight of the nine are positioning for the NCAA Tournament. At Indiana, they’re preparing for The Circus, the annual blizzard of stories that suggest IU fans are angry enough to throw a chair. Many are. Few programs devour themselves with as much gusto as Indiana.

This season, as a no-cost bonus, The Circus includes sidebars about A) possible interest in Crean by (teaser alert) another Power Five program and B) Crean’s ire at his veteran guards as well as C) the usual temperature-taking by the perennially HOWLING HOOSIER FAN BASE.

My take: They’re as perturbed today as they were when Indiana lost to Duke by 20 last season, missed the 2014 NCAA Tournament or tapped out against the Syracuse zone in the 2013 Sweet Sixteen. Some have moved beyond anger to apathy. Apathy is not preferable. 

“This team has Tom frustrated,” a source close to the coach told me said Sunday night.

This is how a coach – and fan base – finds instant frustration. This -- and no Final Fours since 2002.

The Hoosiers beat Kansas (currently No. 3) – and burped against Fort Wayne (a six-time loser in the Summit League).

They attacked North Carolina (No. 10) – and floundered against Nebraska and Michigan, all in Simon Skojdt Assembly Hall.

Too often Crean’s team treats defense as an elective and handles the basketball as if they’re wearing boxing gloves. Turnovers and defense, defense and turnovers.

“I’d say Indiana has had the worst point guard play of any team in the Top 50,” another veteran basketball observer told me Tuesday while analyzing how Indiana has lost eight of 13 Big Ten games.

It is certifiably a puzzling group that has lost five of its last six and now likely needs to win four of its next five to return to serious NCAA Tournament conversation. That list starts with a game at Minnesota Wednesday night.

The Gophers, 8-23 a year ago, are favored by six points.

If you trust Ken Pomeroy’s computer formula, the probability of Indiana winning four of its next five is roughly 3.9 percent. Even winning three of five is nearly as unlikely – at best, 11.9 percent.

The Hoosiers lead the Big Ten in this category – bulletin-board material.

Fans have resumed fire on Crean, who has not posted anything on Twitter since Nov. 2, 2014. Better to avoid the 140-character bile shipped his way.

After the Hoosiers lost to Michigan Sunday, veteran Indianapolis sports columnist Bob Kravitz did de-code the Twitter winds and called the talk about replacing Crean, “absurd.”

Actually, Kravitz used the word absurd twice.

By definition that makes Ryan Phillips of TheBigLead.com absurd.

Phillips wrote that Indiana needed to recruit former Florida coach Billy Donovan from the Oklahoma City Thunder, a story that noted Crean had three seasons as well as a $4 million buyout remaining on his contract.

I read the story, primarily to uncover the fine print about taking care of the final three years and $18 million of Donovan’s NBA contract. The answer: Pass the hat.

Gregg Doyel of the Indianapolis Star identified somebody who was as tired of this 15-11 team as Indiana fans. That would be Crean, who intensified the conversation by criticizing his team’s immaturity in the backcourt.

Crean did not include names. You didn’t have to be J. Edgar Hoover to understand the coach was talking about James Blackmon Jr. and Robert Johnson, his junior guards.

That inspired follow-up analysis from Mike DeCourcy of The Sporting News, who wondered about the risks of a coach losing his team by publicly ripping his players. Tune in Wednesday night.

Next? Don’t leave. It’s a long list. Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports included the Hoosiers in his popular weekly Forde Minutes column, concluding his IU analysis with this sentence:

“Fan dissatisfaction with Tom Crean is edging back up to 2015 levels.”

OK, last call?

Jeff Gordon spoke up on Tuesday. Gordon, who writes for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, advised Missouri fans that Crean could be on the job market. A performance that has annoyed many Indiana fans would be a vast upgrade for a Mizzou program that has won eight Southeastern Conference games the last two-plus seasons.

Timeout. Didn’t I start this column by mentioning Indiana is one of nine teams with two victories against the current AP Top 10.  Get this:

The Hoosiers are actually the only team to have two Top 10 wins outside of league play.

How did this situation return to the shrill tones of Dec. 2, 2015 when Indiana lost to Duke, 94-74?

This is how. The Cliff’s Notes Version will work:

Injuries to Collin Hartman, OG Anunoby, Blackmon and Juwan Morgan. That explains a few defeats. But not 11. A year after being voted Big Ten coach of the year, Crean has not connected with this group. They are careless with the basketball. Teams that struggle to make three-point shots get comfortable from distance against Indiana.

No Alpha males have emerged to replace Yogi Ferrell or Troy Williams, who could regularly make something out of nothing late in the shot clock when the Hoosiers won the Big Ten regular season title (for the second time in four seasons) in 2016.

Multiple attempts to recruit a high-level point guard to replace Ferrell did not work.

“Last season Yogi Ferrell had one of the best seasons anybody has had in the Big Ten in the last 10 years,” one basketball source told me. “He made play after play after play. What you’re seeing now shows how good Ferrell really was.”

Did I mention defense (not enough) and turnovers (too many)? Game. After game.

To that you can add Crean’s displeasure with his veteran guards, Johnson and Blackmon (supported by Pitt transfer Josh Newkirk). They were supposed to form one of the best Big Ten backcourts. They have been outplayed by Michigan (twice), Wisconsin (twice), Maryland, Northwestern and Nebraska.

Said Crean, “I’ve never coached a team with this lack of maturity when it comes to being able to respond and rebound from when things aren’t going well for them personally.

“And that includes the teams I’ve had that won six to ten games. I’ve got to do a much better job because we don’t respond, our communication breaks down and it’s not even close.”

Considering the lack of maturity a string of IU players showed off the court while earning suspensions and dismissals several years ago, that’s quite a statement to ponder.

So get ready. Around the country, NCAA Tournament talk is heating up. At Indiana, The Circus has settled in again.

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