Three years ago, Tom Crean began coaching the Indiana basketball team. The previous coach, Kelvin Sampson, was let go amid a recruiting scandal and the program appeared in dire straits. It was Crean's task to raise the program back to respectability and put IU basketball back in the NCAA Tournament.
It's been a long trip over a bumpy road, but Indiana fans might finally be looking at the season in which Indiana makes that jump from the abyss to Big Ten contention. There is a lot of returning talent as well as some fresh faces that may be able to make an impact right away. Although Jeremiah Rivers has graduated, his absence will be more than made up for by who's coming back.
2011-12 is certainly an exciting season for Indiana, but at the same time, if something does go wrong with this team, it could spell trouble for Crean's administration. There's a lot riding on this squad, so let's dive in.
Indiana isn't rock solid at point guard, but there are a couple of great candidates for the position, both of whom have significant on-court experience. The first is senior Verdell Jones III, who feels like a more natural fit for the position. Jones' ball handling and passing skills far outweigh his long distance shooting. The problem is, he's turned the ball over way too many times in the past to be considered as reliable as elite Big Ten point guards like Jordan Taylor or Aaron Craft. Jones had 89 assists last season and 83 turnovers, which isn't the sexiest ratio ever seen. With his smooth dribbling skills and pull-up jumper, Jones could turn himself into a great point guard if he can move his assist-to-turnover ratio into the 2:1 range.
Another option the point is natural shooting guard Jordan Hulls. Hulls was just a sophomore last season, but he already began emerging as one of the leaders on a young Hoosier team. Although he has more trouble creating his own shot than Jones, when he did get a look, Hulls made it count with 48% on FG overall and 41% on three-pointers. A 2.9 assists per game rate isn't terrible for a guy who wasn't the true full-time point guard, so he certainly can play the point in a pinch. Should Jones struggle with his turnovers again, Hulls is waiting as a less exciting, but safer option.
Victor Oladipo will probably either start at shooting guard or be one of the first guys to come in off the bench. Although Oladipo isn't a natural shooter like Hulls, the quickness and athleticism he brings to the floor will no doubt be an asset to the Hoosiers this season. Last year Oladipo averaged just over one steal per game even though he played only 18 minutes per contest. That sort of defensive effort should get the sophomore some more playing time, as will his ability to drive to the basket. Oladipo is also a great rebounder for his position and can play at small forward should Crean desire a smallish lineup.
Oladipo's classmate Will Sheehey didn't flash as much potential last season, but he's still a tall and athletic guard who is capable of sticking in a rotation. Although Sheehey hasn't developed one outstanding skills that will set him apart from IU's other guards, he did have him moments last season. Most memorable was when he nearly blew the roof off of Assembly Hall with a dunk versus Iowa.
While he won't play a huge role in the Indiana offense, senior Matt Roth certainly has a specific role. When he comes in the game, he'll look to get off a three-pointer. Last season Roth attempted 72 threes compared to just 6 twos, so opponents will know what to expect. However, with newcomer Cody Zeller drawing attention in the paint, it might be difficult to stop Roth anyway. He doesn't do much else particularly well but with Maurice Creek sadly injured yet again, there might be some room in Coach Crean's rotation for Roth.
Incoming freshman Remy Abell is a longshot to get a ton of playing time, but at 6'4", he's very tall for a point guard and is supposedly a strong shooter as well. Because of that size and shooting ability, Abell should be able to fill in at either guard spot should Crean deem him worthy. Last season at Eastern High School in Kentucky, Abell averaged 16 points per game to go with 2.7 assists and 2.5 steals.
Indiana should be much improved up front for the 2011-12 season and a lot of that is due to incoming freshman and McDonald's All-American Cody Zeller. Because Zeller's older brothers Luke and Tyler have already found success at Notre Dame and North Carolina, respectively, it is a pretty safe bet that young Cody will be a boost to the Indiana program. However, the big question this season is how much can Zeller contribute right out of the gate. Although neither Luke nor Tyler became a star player in their freshman years, neither was depended on as much as Cody will be this season. It will be fun to watch and see if Zeller can find an offensive niche on this team to go with his rebounding skills.
Joining Zeller in the frontcourt will be Indiana's returning leading scorer Christian Watford. Watford is a bit of an enigma because he's 6'9", but he doesn't rebound very well and he lives on the perimeter. Last season Watford often found himself in mismatches defensively, but now when he plays alongside Zeller and Tom Pritchard, that should be much less of a problem. The added size upfront should allow Watford to play even more like a scoring small forward. He scored 16 points per game last season despite playing through a broken hand, so expectations are high on Watford this season.
That brings us to Tom Pritchard, the unsexy veteran who has seen his role diminish since he was a freshman post scorer on Crean's first Indiana team. How much Pritchard plays this season partially depends on how effective Cody Zeller is at defending the post. If Zeller can handle himself well enough, Crean may choose to exclude Pritchard in favor of a more offensive inclined lineup, but if Zeller struggles, Pritchard will be asked to defend the post as he did last season. Pritchard scored just 2.5 points per game season despite averaging over 18 minutes, but at the very least he gives Crean more versatility when playing larger opponents.
Perhaps joining in on the fun will be Derek Elston, a junior who still has potential but has struggled to hang onto any sort of consistent rule thus far. In 15.5 minutes per game last season Elston showed he can score a little and rebound too. He's more of an athlete than Pritchard, so if he can get his act together, Elston is a dark horse candidate to break into the starting lineup.
Freshman Austin Etherington is listed as a forward, but is said to be able to shoot well from 20 feet. That's a valuable skill right there, but at 6'6" and 198 lbs., Etherington is more of a wing than a post player. With Sheehey, Oladipo and perhaps Watford already vying for time at that small forward spot, it would be mildly surprising to see Etherington get significant playing time this season. He's a guy to look out for, though.
What to make of all this
Indiana is blessed with a lot of talent this season, but there still aren't a lot of well-defined roles. Jones is sort of like a point guard, but he turns it over too much. Hulls is a great shooter, but can he get to the basket enough to be a major offensive threat? Watford and Zeller obviously have the most talent on the team between the two of them, but Watford needs to round out his game to become a true star. With Zeller, IU doesn't know how much offense they are going to get just yet.
Then there are pieces like Oladipo, Sheehey and Elston that could potentially help out on both offense and defense, but we just haven't seen them as true full-time players yet. It's up to Coach Crean to mold these doughy pieces of clay into the depth he needs to get through the Big Ten season and into the NCAA Tournament. His reputation as a team builder may be riding on it.