Louisville made it clear with their promotion of David Padgett to interim head coach that they have minimal expectations for the 2017-2018 season. With likely severe NCAA sanctions in the pipeline, it clearly wasn’t worth it to fork over a multi-million dollar contract for an elite coach whose first few years would likely be stunted by recruiting restrictions and potential postseason bans.
But what if they had brought in a big name? Someone who can at least claim to have rebuilt a former basketball power program, even if said program eventually regressed to the point of celebrating a few year old regular season victory over our own Wildcats.
What if they had hired Tom Crean? Could he have scrounged together the now splintered Cardinals and led them to some semblance of success?
Well, maybe. But probably not right away.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Marquette was elevated during Crean’s nine year stint in Milwaukee. While previous head coach Mike Deane did lead the Golden Eagles to a pair of NCAA Tournament appearances in 1996 and 1997, these were bookended by trips to the NIT in 1995, where they made the finals, and 1998, where they made the quarterfinals. And 1999 was an abject failure, when Deane’s Marquette finished 14-15 overall and made no postseason appearances beyond a first round Conference USA tournament loss to St. Louis.
Crean’s first two seasons at Marquette were subpar, both ending with 15-14 records. But a four year NCAA Tournament draught ended in 2002 for the Golden Eagles, when they finished 26-7 behind freshman Dwayne Wade. 2003 was even better, a banner year for the program, as behind Wade, Marquette ran all the way to the Final Four before getting routed by Kansas, 94-61.
After a pair of mediocre 19-12 NIT worthy seasons, Marquette moved to the Big East, and Crean led them to three straight NCAA tourneys, though they would never get beyond the second round.
Crean entered a much more dire situation at Indiana in 2008. Kelvin Sampson left the program in ruin, leaving 3 years worth of probation and a barebones roster for Crean to work with. His first year in Bloomington saw the Hoosiers go 6-25, the worst record in program history. 10-21 and 12-20 seasons would follow.
But 2011-2012 was another story, as we UK fans know too well.
IU, behind top recruit Cody Zeller and returners Will Sheehey, Victor Oladipo, and Christian Watford, went 27-9, including a trip to the Sweet Sixteen and a victory over #1 Kentucky. I won’t post the video of Watford’s shot here, because it’s literally my darkest memory as a UK fan, but nonetheless, that win signified the return of Indiana as a relevant power in college basketball.
But while IU’s 2012 Sweet Sixteen appearance was seen as a victory, 2013’s could be viewed as a disappointment. The Hoosiers were the AP Preseason #1 team, and although they won the Big 10 regular season championship, they lost in the semifinals of the conference tourney to Wisconsin, and were upset by 4-seed Syracuse in the Sweet Sixteen.
The remainder of Crean’s tenure at IU was a roller coaster, four years with the following finishes: declining an invite to the CBI, losing in the first round of the NCAA tourney, another Sweet Sixteen showing, and a first round loss in the NIT. He was fired in March of this year.
So here we stand, Crean out of a job, Louisville effectively crippled. Could it have worked?
We can’t garner much from Crean’s time at Marquette. His peak success with the Eagles can mostly be attributed to the generational talent that is D-Wade, and the program wasn’t exactly in shambles when he took over.
But Indiana’s 2008 predicament has plenty of parallels with 2017 Louisville. The allegations against U of L, and the ensuing punishment, will be more severe, but the core of talent already on the team is much better than what Crean started with in Bloomington. He’d have to recruit smartly, which he clearly showed some aptitude for in his early years at IU, and he’d be hounded by condescending UK fans (like me), who would mock him constantly. But we’ve been doing that since he pulled off that miracle upset in 2011, so he’s probably desensitized by now.
Who knows, maybe in a few years, Louisville could hang back-to-back Sweet Sixteen banners in the Yum! Center. We know Crean’s good for that.
So consider this a personal plea to the next Louisville AD: at the end of Padgett’s inevitably short run as head coach, consider Tom Crean. He might not be able to replace your 2013 banner, but he’d make a fun new villain for those of us here in Lexington.