It wasn't the most fun season ever for Indiana fans, but the Hoosiers are a deep squad with an abundance of returning stars and much hope for the future. I spoke with The Crimson Quarry's JustAJ about the recently completed season and what lies ahead for IU hoops in November.
BTP: We just finished Tom Crean’s third season in charge of the Hoosiers. Indiana has improved each year under Crean, but still a 3-15 Big Ten mark has to be disappointing. Are fans still willing to wait a couple more years for the program to resurface or is Crean starting to feel some pressure?
CQ: This is an interesting question as it has some layers. At the immediate end of the season there were definitely some rumblings of discontent among a small group of fans, but as the off-season has worn on those rumblings have turned to mumbles. I think next year there has to be some signs of real tangible progress or Crean will be looking at a hot seat in 2012. But, even if the team completely tanks Crean’s amazing recruiting run has reserved his office until at least 2012.
CQ: This is a tough question because I believe Watford has the greater talent and upside, but Hulls has become a true leader among the program. Tom Crean just tweeted the other day about Hulls and Sheehey really being leaders in the weight room. This team could use a real injection of talent but it needs leadership more. IU lost several games this year down the final stretch because they would crumble when it mattered most. So I would choose the leadership qualities of Jordan Hulls over the greater talent of Christian Watford.
BTP: Maurice Creek fractured a kneecap for the second straight season. Can he still have a big impact on this team in the future or will he get lost behind Victor Oladipo and Will Sheehey in IU’s wing rotation?
CQ: The freak thing about Mo’s kneecap is that it wasn’t just one. It was both. Two freak injuries to two separate knees in two consecutive years. I’d imagine after having been out of competitive basketball for essentially two years he’s going to have a lot of cobwebs to shake off. That being said he is a great talent. He may get lost in the shuffle for a good portion of the upcoming season because of issues he will have to work through, but come the second half of the Big Ten season I would not be surprised to see him as the number one or two scoring threat for the Hoosiers.
BTP: How excited are you for incoming 6’11 power forward Cody Zeller? Are you expecting him to make a Sullinger-like impact on an Indiana team that was lacking in frontcourt size this season?
CQ: Personally, I am extremely happy to see him in Bloomington. I am from Southern Indiana, played against the middle Zeller in AAU basketball and watched Luke a year ahead of me in high school, while I was sitting in the stands, hit a game winning, half court, state championship shot that still gives me goose bumps when I think about it. So there is some nostalgia in a Zeller boy playing for my team. He should have a big impact on IU next year but nowhere near the kind of impact Sullinger had for Ohio State. Zeller will be a scoring threat that teams haven’t had to focus on in the past few seasons. By having to keep an eye on Zeller, teams will not be able to solely focus on the perimeter game, thus improving the rest of the team.
BTP: Both Verdell Jones and Jordan Hulls did some point guard work this season. Jones was a better assist guy but also turned the ball over much more often. Would you rather the guards’ roles be more defined next season? Which player are you more comfortable with playing the point?
CQ: Wanting and having are two different things. I would WANT the roles to be more defined but I don’t think we’re going to get it. If Verdell can discover the magic combination of limiting turnovers and still being a good distributor I would love to see him get the majority of the load at PG. He is better at attacking the perimeter and hits that 15-foot pull up jumper with deadly accuracy. Hulls is a much better catch and shoot player than he is with the dribble drive so naturally him swinging over to SG would be for the best. The guard situation is completely in the hands of Jones and whether he can find a way to stop throwing the ball to the other team.
BTP: Jeremiah Rivers is the lone graduating senior. He was a great defender on the perimeter. Is there anyone on the team right now capable of filling that role for 2011-12?
CQ: Jeremiah played his way into many starting lineups because of his lockdown perimeter defense. The player on the current roster that I could see filling that role is Victor Oladipo. He is deceptively long and is a hard worker. Rivers’ motor was what made him so good. His persistence was a nuisance to anyone he matched up against. Will Sheehey would be number two in line of possible successors to Rivers because of that same motor and drive to ruin the other guy’s night.
BTP: Tell us about the other incoming freshman, Austin Etherington. With Indiana’s deep lineup, will he give coach Crean a reason to play him right away?
CQ: AE has been THE reason that Crean has had his recruiting success. The kid is like another coach on the recruiting trail and his basketball IQ is through the roof. I truly believe that Etherington will find his way on the court in one facet or another. He could use a little more bulk which may see him spend a good portion of next year working with a nutritionist and weight coach to add some size to him, but he seems to me to be a guy that will find a role no matter the team dynamics. His basketball intelligence makes him a very versatile player defensively and very capable offensively.
BTP: OK, finally how will Indiana do in the Big Ten next season and will they qualify for the NCAA Tournament?
CQ: That is the million dollar question. If I knew I’d move to Vegas. But an educated guess tells me that if put in a vacuum (meaning barring any major injuries or NCAA ineligibility decisions) they will a 17-18 win team. I’m sure the pre-conference schedule will be a cake walk resulting in 9-10 wins and the conference schedule will see us winning more of those close games that we dropped this season. 7 or 8 wins in conference shouldn’t be too much to ask for. If Zeller and AE are more effective than I expect and we see more growth in the current players a NCAA at large bid is possible. I think the NIT is more plausible though.