Normally, when it comes to the NBA draft, analysts and fans try to dissect what it means for various NBA teams.
This year—at least in Indiana—there’s no shortage of people trying to decide what last Thursday’s draft means for the Indiana University basketball team and what it says about the team’s coach, Tom Crean.
I’ve heard from a number of people who said it only intensifies the questions they have about Crean’s coaching ability. The anti-Crean camp asks, ‘How can a team with the second- and fourth-best college players not get past the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA tournament?’
It’s a legitimate question. But I’m not going to try to answer it. I don’t spend enough time studying the X's and O's of college basketball to render an opinion. And I’m not inside the minds of NBA general managers, who draft as much on potential as past performance.
I don’t consider myself a Crean apologist, but let’s not forget what this man has done for IU’s program. IU last year won the outright Big Ten regular-season championship. And that’s just three years removed from being one of the worst teams in college basketball.
This much can be said with certainty: When it comes to college basketball, the standards in Indiana are sky high. And if at some point, Crean can’t win an NCAA championship, he’ll be just another guy living out his days in Branch McCracken’s and Bob Knight’s shadows. That may be unfair, but it’s true, at least in so much as the program’s fans and supporters are concerned.
This NBA draft, however, will mean something very different to most blue-chip high school recruits than it does to IU faithful. With that, I can say with some level of certainty that Victor Oladipo's being drafted No. 2 overall and Cody Zeller's going No. 4 won’t affect Crean’s recruiting efforts one bit. It will only enhance those efforts to attract the best high school players to Bloomington.
Rick Pitino might have the 2013 NCAA championship trophy, but he didn’t have two of his guys drafted in the top four of this year’s NBA draft. That gets to another truth, one that won’t sit well with many college basketball fans, especially the purists who think the 1970s and 1980s were the golden age.
Today, the best U.S. high school basketball players don’t care that much about winning an NCAA championship. It’s not like the days when Scott May and Quinn Buckner came back for their senior year to win a national championship.
Look at Zeller and Oladipo, and they’re certainly not alone. You could also point to Butler’s Gordon Hayward and many others. All gave up a good shot at an NCAA title for an NBA paycheck. Most players bolt when they have a solid chance at becoming a high first-round selection.
I’m not here to judge them. There’s certainly something to be said for financial security. I’m just stating that players used to want to play for guys like Bob Knight and Johnny Wooden because they wanted to win a national championship. Now high school players want to play for a coach that can get them to the NBA.
Overall, last week’s NBA draft appears to be something of a mixed bag for IU. If the school is seeking publicity from its sports programs, it got plenty of it on draft night and the days that followed.
But there’s a fan-generated grumble rumbling from Bloomington right through Indianapolis and all the way to Chicago—the biggest bastions of IU supporters. Crean isn’t tone deaf when it comes to such grumbling. Neither is his boss, IU Athletic Director Fred Glass.
After all, these guys serve two masters. Crean has to be able to play well in front of the 17- and 18-year-old recruits that fuel the program’s ever-hungry fire. But he and Glass also have to answer to the fan base, which is heavily populated with money-donating alums.
Guys like Oladipo and Zeller are getting their money. Crean and Glass have to make sure the program continues to get its share as well.