Tom Crean has tried to force the leadership qualities from his junior class all season.
On Sunday, it all boiled over.
The Indiana coach laid bare his frustrations with his upperclassmen for their inability to steer the Hoosiers in the direction they need to go. Tonight, in a 9 p.m. game at Minnesota, his players will have the chance to respond.
At least publicly, Crean is seldom so pointed in his criticism of his own players. After Sunday’s flat performance against Michigan, Crean repeatedly acknowledged the immaturity of several players during both his postgame radio interview and ensuing press conference. While simultaneously sharing responsibility for his team’s downward trend, Crean was trying to push different buttons with players who have shown leadership qualities in flashes, but certainly not in abundance.
So the nadir that was the Michigan loss prompted Crean to take a different approach.
Leadership can be a tricky thing to foster when it does not emerge organically. But it has to come from somewhere. With time running out on a season of unmet expectations, Indiana is still trying to find it.
“It really comes down to who do they feel safe with when they’re on the court?” Crean said on his weekly radio show. “Who makes them better by making the game easier, and who can they look at every day and say, ‘That guy is that same guy every day.'”
Throughout the season, Crean has noted different players stepping into leadership roles at different times. Robert Johnson has tried. So, too, has James Blackmon Jr. Thomas Bryant and Juwan Morgan have also had their moments.
But no one on this team has brought that presence consistently.
At the same time, Crean has been disappointed with the fact that noe enough of their teammates have helped them own the leadership role when those individuals have stepped forward.
To Crean, that’s what this process is all about.
Reflecting upon his 2003 Marquette team that made a Final Four run, Crean appreciated how that team led each other. Dwyane Wade was the best player, but he was led by sophomore Travis Diener. Meanwhile, Wade, a junior, helped bring senior Robert Jackson along, while Jackson led junior Scott Merritt.
“Those are not all household names outside of Dwyane and Travis, but it was a really, really good vacuum of leadership,” Crean said. “It was all covered. Everything else fell in line with those guys. Wade’s leadership really emerged, but he also needed someone else to keep him in check.”
Although Crean has pushed for leadership from the juniors, a class that consists of Blackmon, Johnson and Josh Newkirk — a trio of IU’s most relied upon players — the best players don’t always make the best leaders.
They can, however, provide calm for those around them. That’s what Cody Zeller gave Crean’s teams as a freshman in 2011-2012 and as a junior in 2012-2013.
“I think that team, it was a real safety net with Cody on the floor,” Crean said. “Not just me as a coach, not just our coaching staff and not just Hoosier Nation, but there was a big safety net in seeing him play. The team felt very confident with him and, in turn, that brought more confidence into Vic (Oladipo).”
Having a safety net, like with Zeller, is important. Through the first three and a half months, Indiana never developed it.
That’s partly why Crean called out his junior backcourt after the Michigan disappointment, and it’s why, with four of the final five games scheduled away from Assembly Hall, the Indiana coach is demanding one last time this season that someone get the message and begin pulling their teammates from the depths where this team has fallen.
“People say, ‘Well, you have to trust your teammates,'” Crean said. “It’s not as much about trust. It’s about who do they feel confident with? Because that person is on the floor. When push comes to shove and you’re down six on the road, that’s safety. That’s the leader. You want to try to have as many of those (guys) as you possibly can that help you feel that way.”