This year, the Hoosiers will be a much different team than they were last year and nowhere will look more different than the frontcourt. Last year, the Hoosiers had one of the best frontcourts in the nation with Cody Zeller (All-Big Ten) and Christian Watford (3rd team All-Big Ten) manning the post. However, Zeller declared for the NBA Draft and Watford graduated over the offseason. Now, Indiana has to figure out a way to replace two of the best and most consistent players on the roster in recent years. Can the Hoosiers fill the void left by Zeller and Watford and remain one of the top teams in the Big Ten this year?
This has probably been one of the fiercest debates over the offseason. Which players will get the starting nod for next year? The answer is a bit of a complicated one. The problem for Crean is that he doesn't really have two clear options upfront at this point. Unlike last year (where there were two clear starters) there are no clear candidates to fill the center and power forward position this year. This is primarily due to the lack of a second option.
As I wrote earlier last week, newcomer Noah Vonleh will likely be forced into playing center. He has the size and rebounding skills to hold his own here, but almost everybody agrees that his skillset would probably be more useful at power forward. The problem with putting him at power forward is that it means Indiana would have to put another big man on the floor instead of another guard or wing. This doesn't really correlate well with the team's roster depth this season, which makes Vonleh a likely starter here. Essentially, Vonleh has a good shot at playing here because he should be good enough to let Indiana get another scoring threat on the floor. The good news here is that Vonleh is one of the most highly ranked recruits in the nation. He has a boatload of talent and is only going to get better as the year goes along. There were some offseason injury concerns, but nothing appears to be too big to prevent him from playing.
At the other spot in the frontcourt, Crean has a few options. If he continues the idea of going "small", he will likely look to sophomore Jeremy Hollowell. Unfortunately, he didn't turn many heads last season, averaging just over 9 minutes and 2.8 points per game. Sure, he was a true freshman on a talented and deep roster, but he never displayed the consistency many hoped he would last year. The difference this year could be ten-fold. Reports out of camp have been stellar and Hollowell is expected to take a major step forward. If he can do this, the 4 spot would be a great role for him. It would give Indiana a long, athletic, and versatile scoring option who has shown he has the ability to play defense. Whether he has really taken the next step to be that difference maker for the Hoosiers is still unknown, but Indiana's lineup could really be dangerous offensively if he is good enough to hold down a starter spot and be productive.
This starting lineup hinges on the idea of Crean going small. If the Hoosiers decide to go with a bigger lineup, expect Vonleh to move down to power forward and for another big to hit the floor. This will definitely happen throughout games, but we haven't seen if it's a viable option long term. Other starting candidates if Crean does go big include Luke Fischer, Peter Jurkin, and Hanner Mosquera-Perea. However, the smaller lineup appears to be more likely at this point.
As mentioned, most of the backup time will likely be taken with Indiana going to a bigger lineup. They can simply slide Vonleh to the 4 or put in another big man to replace him and leave Hollowell on the floor. This should give the Hoosiers many lineup options to use. The big options here appear to be Luke Fischer, Peter Jurkin, and Hanner Mosquera-Perea. Fischer is a highly rated true freshman like Vonleh, but doesn't appear to be quite as "college-ready" as Vonleh. He's spent much of his time in Bloomington simply trying to fill out his frame and recovering from a preseason injury. Due to this, he has to be a question mark.
The other options also have some questions. Jurkin has battled injuries his entire career and has again battled some injuries this offseason. This is one of the major reasons he played just 7 minutes last year. He will very likely pass his minute threshold from last year, but the loss of experience from last year could be a major limiter this year. Finally, Mosquera-Perea is the most proven of these three options. He played in 20 games last season including some big ones against Butler, Michigan, and MSU. However, he averaged just 5.8 minutes, 0.9 points, and 1.5 rebounds per game. If he wants to play more minutes, he will have to manage more production than he did last year. Each of these three options has a lot of potential and will very likely see time on the floor, but none has proven enough at this point to really be counted to step in right away.
Other names to watch off the bench will likely be Devin Davis, Troy Williams, and Jeff Howard. Davis received much praise as a recruit, but still needs to improve his game before being a serious option. He is probably a little small to play at the four, but if Indiana wants to stay small for matchup reasons, he could be a useful tool off the bench. Williams will probably play way more at the 3 than the 4, but there's a chance he could play at the 4 spot. He has incredible athleticism and a really high ceiling. Howard probably won't get much time as a walk-on, but he could get a little time upfront in the right situation.
Biggest Question: Can Jeremy Hollowell Take The Next Step?
This entire lineup and discussion depends on Hollowell. If he can't play serious minutes as a stretch four and is forced to come off the bench on the wing, the Hoosiers are going to have a big challenge. Fischer, Jurkin, and Mosquera-Perea could improve significantly and make this point mute, but they are major question marks at this point. Jurkin and Mosquera-Perea have done little since they arrived on campus and have had injury concerns. Fischer is still a freshman and needs to get bigger and more physical before fans can expect him to play inside against the Big Ten's best. Due to this, starting one of these three probably isn't a preferred option.
If Hollowell can be productive enough, it would allow Vonleh to play the 5 spot. He's probably the team's best option there and it would allow Hollowell to get on the court over the team's other three frontcourt options. Hollowell is probably much more of an offensive threat than any of the other three frontcourt options (even if they improve). Having that extra scoring option could be huge down the line. The backcourt is solid, but the team still doesn't have a proven "scorer" like they did last year with a few players. Yogi Ferrell and Will Sheehey are fine, but neither are going to score like Zeller did last season. Having Hollowell out there to help would be huge. He has the potential be a star (I wrote about this last summer). The biggest question will simply be if he can defend the other power forwards around the Big Ten. He has shown he can play defensively, but it will be a whole different challenge to attempt to stop bigger and more physical opponents. If he can do this effectively, the Hoosiers could be really good again.
The frontcourt will probably not be as good as it was last year, but that doesn't mean it will be bad either. The team brings back some depth and added some incredible talents in the offseason. There isn't much proven production right now for Indiana upfront, but there is a lot of potential. The biggest question may be about the improvement of Hollowell, but the frontcourt will drastically look to Vonleh to be a "sure thing" as a freshman. There's going to be much pressure on him to produce, but there are a lot of things for Hoosier fans to be excited about seeing from him and others this season.