There is not a B1G team in the conference that has a more important season ahead of it than Indiana University. In addition, there may not be a coach in the conference that is on a hotter seat than Tom Crean. Coach Crean has been in Bloomington for 6 seasons now and has finished higher than 9th place only two times. For a fan base that worships the sport of college basketball - the results in the Crean era just haven't been acceptable. It is as simple as that for most fans.
Crean started his Bloomington tenure 28-66 in the first three seasons. There were plenty of valid excuses to go around for this given that the team suffered a "virtual" death penalty before his first season as only two walk-ons remained on the team. Then things got really exciting for a couple seasons as the team went 56-16 in the next two seasons which both ended in disappointing Sweet 16 losses. The latter of those seasons was most disappointing as the team was ranked #1 for the majority of the year and sent two players in the Top 4 picks of the NBA Draft - but still couldn't get past the Sweet 16. At this point is when fans started to wonder if this program was really headed in the right direction.
Then came this past season where the Hoosiers brought in another very highly touted recruiting class lead by Noah Vonleh, who will likely go in the Top 7 picks of this year's NBA Draft. Indiana played one of the worst non-conference schedules in the entire country and lost all games against other high major teams with the exception of a pretty bad Washington team. The B1G season didn't get a whole lot better as the Hoosiers finished in 9th place and failed to even make the NIT with a team that was widely viewed to be a lock for the NCAA Tournament to start the year. There were bright spots along the way - such as beating #3 Wisconsin for the first time in years, but there were not enough of these to quiet the Crean critics who are now out in full force.
So the stage is now set for 2014-2015. Can one of college basketball's historical powerhouses get going in the right direction again or is this program about to freefall into another decade of mediocrity and coaching changes? The offseason hasn't exactly got off to a wonderful start as Noah Vonleh declared for the NBA Draft while Austin Etherington, Jeremy Hollowell, and Jonny Marlin all decided to transfer elsewhere. Collin Hartman tore his ACL near the end of the season and likely won't be available until the second semester if at all next year. On top of all this - Coach Crean was unable to land a highly rated big man to replace Vonleh and instead offered scholarships to two virtually unknown players who accepted on the spot without even visiting the school. In all likelihood, this means the Hoosiers will be playing a lot of very small lineups next season which is not the way you typically make it into the NCAA Tournament or perform well within the B1G for that matter. Indiana does have one scholarship still open for next season and most fans are praying for a star big man to become available late on the 5th year transfer market, but that situation has not yet developed.
As mentioned above, in this all important season for Indiana basketball, it will have to be the guard play that carries Indiana into The Dance. The Hoosiers will be led by B1G Player of the Year candidate Yogi Ferrell who averaged 17.3 points per game this past season as a sophomore. He will be joined by arguably the top recruit in the conference - James Blackmon Jr. who can absolutely light it up from behind the arc. He chose the Hoosiers over Kentucky which says about all anyone needs to know given how Kentucky is recruiting these days. There will be a few great backcourts in the B1G in 2014-2015, but I am not sure any of them will match what Indiana's ends up producing on a nightly basis. The Hoosiers will also have the services of incoming freshman guard Robert Johnson who is also very highly rated and is as pure a shooter as Blackmon.
The key to the season might be the type of leadership Ferrell is able to provide to the younger players which may be in question given his recent arrest in Bloomington for utilizing a fake ID. To go along with these two guards, Indiana also has some very talented forwards that will really need to pick up their production next year for the Hoosiers to be successful. Troy Williams averaged 7.3 points per game while Stanford Robinson averaged 6.4 in his freshman campaign. Both of these players showed great potential at times last year and if they can each take a Victor Oladipo type jump this offseason - Indiana might be just fine despite the lack of a play maker down low.
Saying Indiana is lacking a play maker down low is on par with saying the sky is blue at this point. The Hoosiers do return Hanner Mosquera Perea at 6'8", but he has been anything but consistent in his first two seasons and like Ferrell, has also had a hard time focusing off the court as he was arrested this past season for driving under the influence. Perea averaged only 2.8 points per game last year and will need to at least double that if not triple that if the Hoosiers are going to have any chance down low in the B1G. It has been rumored that Devin Davis has grown a couple of inches this offseason which would put him around 6'8" as well which is great news for Indiana fans as Davis is viewed as having a ton of potential and has appeared to also be a very hard worker. He averaged 2.4 points in his freshman year and did not register a single assist, but there were a lot of bright moments for him that showed off his tremendous potential. Outside of Perea and Davis, you have the two incoming freshman who accepted a scholarship without even visiting the school in Jeremiah April and Tim Priller. Neither of these guys are likely to come in and play much of a role and if they do - that probably isn't good news for Indiana.
The 14-15 season is also extremely important from a recruiting standpoint. After sending Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo to the NBA followed by Vonleh this season, you would think there would be a line at Coach Crean's office of players wanting to come to Indiana. However, Indiana is really struggling in the 2015 class and currently has no commitments. Whether that is due to a perceived risk that Crean may not be at Indiana much longer - no one can really tell. It is absolutely crucial that the Hoosiers get back to their winning ways to put the Crean rumors to rest and allow recruits to see that the program is steady and not teetering on the brink of freefall again. The 2016 class is loaded, especially in the State of Indiana and the Hoosiers cannot afford to miss out on it - especially if they end up missing on the 2015 class.
In summary - it is an absolute must for Indiana to make the NCAA Tournament next year. If they don't, I personally do not believe Tom Crean will return to Bloomington and that may set off a long chain of events that the Hoosier faithful may not like too much. So instead of setting the program back another 8 to 10 years - it would be in everyone's best interest if Indiana just won some games next year. As can be seen above though - that isn't going to be easy.