Q-and-A with Indiana coach Tom Crean

When it comes to setting goals, Indiana coach Tom Crean says he’s not a numbers guy.

“I’ve never been big on that kind of stuff,” Crean said. “I’m not one of those coaches that sits up in the dark of the night with a flashlight, going over the schedule and trying to mark off teams I think we’re going to beat.

“I focus more on giving my guys a plan and preparing them to win.”

More so than any time during Crean’s three-year stint in Bloomington, the Hoosiers are poised to do just that.

Tom Crean expects significant improvement after a 12-20 season at Indiana.
(Brian Spurlock/US Presswire)

Indiana went just 12-20 overall last season and only 3-15 in Big Ten play. Still, with touted recruit Cody Zeller joining a cast of returnees that includes Christian Watford and Verdell Jones, the Hoosiers are confident the strides they make in 2011-12 will be significant.

“There have certainly been times when we haven’t been talented enough or competitive enough to win games,” Crean said. “The talent gap is narrowing.”

Crean took over a program in 2008 that had been decimated by NCAA violations committed under previous coach Kelvin Sampson. Indiana fans recognized the massive rebuilding job that was at hand and have been patient with Crean, who conducted a Q and A with Yahoo! Sports.

Q: Before we get to basketball, you’ve been in Bloomington just over three years now. How have you adapted to the environment there?

A: “It’s been great. It’s a great place to live, without a doubt. The campus has got so much. It’s not so spread out to where you don’t feel like you’re a part of it. Plus, if you want to go somewhere that’s a little bit bigger with a few more things, you’ve got Indianapolis about an hour north. We’re happy staying in Bloomington, though. It’s a community feel. We live five minutes away from Assembly Hall. We’ve got a first-grader (Ainsley), a seventh-grader (Riley) and an 11th-grader (Megan). It’s been very good. My son plays everything. He’s quarterbacking now, he plays basketball, he plays baseball. My daughter plays tennis. My little one is just started to get involved in those things, summer basketball and fall soccer, that kind of stuff. It’s been great.”

Q: You mentioned your oldest daughter. Did I really read a tweet that said the two of you were standing in line to meet Nikki Minaj?

A: “Yeah, she came to Bloomington for a concert and Megan wanted to meet her. I didn’t know a lot about her music but I knew the players would be impressed. I knew the recruits would. It was one of those meet-and-greets before the concert. We didn’t stay for the show, but we got our picture taken. I still haven’t seen the picture. I think my daughter may have it on her Facebook page or something. Lil Wayne was here, too. I didn’t come back for that. There’s a lot of action in Bloomington. Last year, within two weeks of each other, we had the Dalai Lama here and then Snoop Dogg.”

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Q: It’s pretty well known that your wife has two brothers who are NFL head coaches: John Harbaugh with the Baltimore Ravens and Jim Harbaugh with the San Francisco 49ers. What happens at your house on NFL Sundays? Do you drop everything to watch their games?

A: “Right now my son is a seventh-grader. He’s a quarterback and his team plays on Sundays. My wife signed up for NFL Mobile on her phone. The other day she was watching our son and the Ravens game at the same time. I thought that was pretty cool. It works great if you can see one of them on the 1 p.m. game and then the other at 4:15. We try not to schedule our workouts during that time. When they play each other, my family may go, but I won’t have the ability to do that with the basketball season the way it is. What we’ve always tried to do is go to one of each of their games. Last year we saw John and the Ravens play at home against Denver and we saw Jim and Stanford play at Notre Dame. It’s not as easy as it sounds to find those dates when you have to recruit and when your team is working out.”

Q: You mentioned the cool technology with your wife’s phone. Along those same lines, what is your take on Twitter? Some coaches are preventing their players from tweeting. Are you considering a Twitter ban?

A: “No. I hope I never have to. They’ve just got to learn to be regulators of their own thoughts. They can’t throw random things out there that they could’ve just as easily put in a text. Sometimes Twitter can become that, those random digressions when you just throw things out there for the world to see. That’s especially the case when you’re a college athlete, a basketball player at Indiana. It gets a ton of attention. I heard a great statement one time on the Today Show. Someone said, “You should view the ‘send’ button like pulling a trigger on a gun. Once you pull it, you can’t get it back. That’s what ‘send’ is like.” I use that line with my guys from time to time. We try to help them and give them advice. That’s not to say we won’t have an issue. Hopefully it won’t get to that point, though. I want them to understand that there’s a lot freedom they get. Twitter is one of those things. It’s important they use it wisely.”

Q: You seem to tweet more than most coaches? How has it worked to your advantage?

A: “I thought it was going to be a big recruiting deal but it hasn’t turned into that at all. It’s become much more about providing information to people who are interested in our program. Fans, alums and certain media members follow it. That’s what’s exciting. I’m very cognizant of that. I’ve made mistakes on things I’ve put up from time to time. For the most part you want to put up things you think are going to matter to people. I think it’s a great way to keep people abreast of your team. I don’t just want to put out, “The guys looked good today. They worked hard.” I want to give more detail without giving our opponents a competitive advantage.”

Five-star recruit Cody Zeller was ranked as the No. 15 player in the class of 2011 by Rivals.com.
(Darron Cummings/AP Photo)

Q: Moving on to basketball, a lot of Indiana fans are excited about your 2011 recruiting class. How important is it for them to temper their expectations while the newcomers adapt to the college game?

A: “Very important, but we have a smart fanbase. With what we’ve gone through here, the way the fans have stayed behind this program during the short time we’ve been here has been nothing short of amazing. In all honesty, since my second day on the job, the feeling that your back is against the wall, especially competitively … we’ve always felt that way. We’ve always tried to dig out from under that and looked forward to the day when we were going to get more competitive, more on an even-level playing field. I think we’re getting to that. We don’t know what that feels like. We don’t have one player that has been through a league race or has been on an extended winning streak or has put together a string of victories. We’ve got to learn how to do that. The only way to do that is to get your players to understand the value of each day. Every experience, every scrimmage, every game has to have that feeling. If you keep your team focused on that, it gives you a chance. I don’t worry about fans’ expectations as much as I worry about a player or a group of players feeling pressure or burdens. Someone like Cody Zeller isn’t built that way. He’s been a high-level, competitive guy for a very long time. He’s got confidence. Our job is to bring that confidence out while we’re challenging him to be better. If we can keep him focused on that … like I said, it’s a pretty smart fanbase. I think they’ll see that. I think they’ll see the upside of this team. Hopefully they’re going to see us not only be competitive, but able to win games that we haven’t been able to win in the past.”

Q: There is a lot of anticipation about Zeller and the rest of your newcomers. What have been your impressions thus far?

A: “Once these guys got here, we went from having a very good spring to having a very good summer. It wouldn’t have been a good summer if 75-80 percent of the team is working hard and 20-25 percent of the team is behind. I don’t see that at all. Every one of these guys has been committed to getting their bodies better, to building their conditioning to adding things to their game to becoming more competitive. The new guys walked right into it and have been a big part of it. Everyone has different strengths. Now that we’ve gotten into some bigger group setting these last couple of days, we’ve seen guys’ real skills come out, where maybe we didn’t see it as much during the breakdown drills because they didn’t understand everything we were asking them to do. You start going up and down the court, you see the explosiveness of Cody Zeller and his ability to run. Those are the things we love to see. Everyone has shown that they are really serious about getting better. There is nobody that is happy with the way they have played or the way we have played. There’s a respect for the new guys because they were so involved with their recruiting, especially with Austin and with Cody. They walked in and already felt like a part of everything.”

Q: How is Maurice Creek coming along after last year’s season-ending knee injury?

A: “He’s not 100 percent. He’s not ready to practice. He’s done some one-on-one in limited settings but it hasn’t been with his teammates, unless he’s sneaking in here late at night and doing that along with his shooting drills, which I don’t think he is. He’s smarter than that. We’re not in a rush with him. His rehabilitation has been fantastic. He’s getting stronger. Right now he’s doing things in controlled settings with managers and coaches. We haven’t put him into live action drills yet. There’s not a time period on that just yet. He was evaluated at length again [on Friday]. He’s definitely doing the right things. The mental part was the biggest hurdle for him last year, as far as overcoming that injury. As a coach I’m more concerned with that than the physical aspect, because we’re certainly not going to put him out there and ask him to do things that the doctors and trainers tell him he can’t do.”

Q: You lost the final nine games of the 2010-11 season. What was the most frustrating aspect of that streak?

A: “l look at those losses and say, “What’s the common denominator in those games?” That’s what we’re focused on more than anything. We’ve got to cut down our fouling in a big way. We averaged 22 fouls a game last season and finished last. Ohio State averaged 15 fouls a game and won the league. Right there, that statistic alone, you put a bright light on that, because that’s a big deal. You know injuries play into it and you know that not having enough scoring threats plays into it. But when the new year comes, you don’t focus on any of that. You just focus on what you can do to get better and what you can eliminate that has been getting you beat. It’s time for us to string some successes together, not just one here and there.”

Q: Christian Watford is obviously one of your best players. How much do you think he’ll benefit from Zeller’s presence down low?

A: “Cody makes everyone better, but without a doubt, Christian is at the forefront of that. Christian is at the forefront of his own improvement because of how hard he’s worked from the spring on. He’s really got a different hunger since we got back from spring break. If he continues on that path that he’s been since March, if he continues to improve at the rate he’s been improving – I’ve never been around a guy that, when he’s locked in, improves at as fast of a rate as this guy does. When he really locks into getting better, he gets better in a hurry. He’s done that. He was our best 3-point shooter at the end of last season. His ballhandling has improved. He’s got to improve his ability to rebound at a high level, especially on the offensive end. If he gets his rebounding and his decision-making where it needs to be – if he combines that with his athleticism and his attack mentality – he’s going to have a fantastic year. With that being said, he’s not at a point where he can have a few days where he doesn’t get better. He’s not the type of player that can chill for a few days and be fine. He’s not that way. He hasn’t had enough sustained success at the collegiate level to do that.”

Q: Is this as much parity as you’ve seen in the Big Ten?

A: “I look at publications that predict us to finish ninth or 10th and I say, ‘That’s not going to happen.’ Then I’ll see one where Iowa is picked 12th, and I’ll say, ‘I’ll bet the house that’s not going to happen. That’s too tough of a program, they’re too good of a team and [Fran McCaffrey] is too good of a coach.’ It’s a high-level league. If you really pay attention to why teams get better … I look at Penn State last year. They got better because Jeff Brooks got better. Talor Battle had the same numbers as the year before. But Brooks got better and Tim Frazier had more assists than shots. It’s not always the new guys that come in that take you to the next step. A lot of times it’s the guys in your program that really take that next step from freshman to sophomore year or sophomore to junior year. That’s what really elevates your program. We need a combination of that. We need the incoming guys, especially Cody, to come in and impact this team the way we think they can. But in this league that’s never enough. You’ve got to have enough guys really take their game to the next level.”

Q: How tough is it to move up in the standings with all of the great coaching in the Big Ten?

A: “In a lot of leagues you can say, ‘If we can do this, this and this, we’ll be fine.’ But you don’t say that in the Big Ten. Because other teams can do ‘this, this and this, too.’ The teams in this league are committed to their systems. A lot of times, in the Big Ten, it feels like it’s back to the old Vince Lombardi power sweep. Teams are going to do what they do, and they’re going to dare you to stop it. There’s not a lot of trickery. We’ve played every kind of defense known to mankind the past couple of years to try to stay in games. Sometimes it’s worked for us, but ultimately, if you didn’t have enough talent and you didn’t have enough moxie to finish a game, you weren’t going to be able to win. We lost way too many games in the last five or six minutes because we didn’t execute, because we didn’t play through fatigue, because shots weren’t going in and we put our heads down on defense, because we made a critical error defensively. We’ve got to eliminate that. This year, we can’t beat ourselves because we didn’t take care of business at the end of a game. That’s going to be huge for us.”

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Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Sep 20, 2011