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Understanding how Tom Crean has restored Indiana's basketball mojo –- a preseason No. 1 ranking, national title-contending status -- means understanding his recruiting philosophy.
You go young.
How young? Crean offered Indianapolis 8th grader Eron Gordon a scholarship. Bishop Luers guard James Blackmon and Indianapolis Tech forward Trey Lyles both committed to the Hoosiers before each had started high school. And while Indiana sophomore Cody Zeller didn't commit until the fall of his senior year, Crean started recruiting him the instant he took the Hoosier job in the spring of 2008.
Crean explained his philosophy during his recent visit to Fort Wayne as part of IU's Tailgate tour.
“You've got to start very young,” he said. “There's got to be an intelligence upside. It's not all based on grade point yet. It's how alert and aware are they? Can they carry on conversations? What's their eye contact like? Can they communicate?
“Their intelligence will continue to rise. Is there a talent level, athletically? Is there an athleticism to them? Sometimes, to me, the younger they are, the more important their athleticism is. It's more important than their basketball skills.
“If there is a talent upside and an intelligence upside, they're going to get better as players. But you've got to have that athletic upside. That's where length and wingspan comes in.”
Length and wingspan are among the reasons why Crean is so high on incoming 6-8 freshman Jeremy Hollowell from Lawrence Central.
Even while recruiting young players, Crean seeks maturity and quality of character. Troubled players who MIGHT grow up –- in other words, the kind of high-risk players former coach Kelvin Sampson preferred -- aren't on his wish list.
“If you have to start deciphering whether they'll grow up, whether they'll get better, that they come from a tough environment, forget that,” Crean said. “We're moving on.
“We want to be with people who have some character and toughness. I coached a team at Marquette that went to the Final Four, and 75 percent of us, including the head coach, didn't have both parents at home. It's not about that.”
Crean wants quality players, quality students and quality people. Even at a young age, he said, you can find those qualities.
“What's their character like? Is there a work ethic? Do they love it? Are they building a passion? How do they treat people? How do they treat their coaches, that janitor, those ninth and 10th guys on the bench, when no one is looking? That's where character comes out.”
There's one other key element Crean wants -– a winning edge.
“When you put it all together, the thing that separates everything is year-round winning. The high school coach, the summer coach, are both incredibly important. Are the players developing? Are the coaches demanding?
“Too many people in this world think demanding is a weakness. That being demanding is for somebody else. That it's not for me.
“To me, demanding is a strength. When we start evaluating players, we want to see what those demands are like from their family and their coaches.
“We are blessed in this state with great coaching. This area takes a back seat to no one. It is tremendous.”