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Steel Reserves – Are Indiana’s Subs Substandard?

Last year, Indiana's starters were capable of carrying the team. This year's starting lineup can't score nearly as well - can Indiana's bench buck up and pick up the slack?

Luke Fischer competes for a loose ball against Evansville
Luke Fischer competes for a loose ball against Evansville
Andy Lyons

By now, you’ve heard the most popular refrain on this year’s Indiana Hoosiers. They lost four thousand point scorers. They lost two top four draft picks in Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller. They’re one of the youngest teams in the Big Ten.  The conversation has been somewhat repetitive, but it hasn't been without reason. Last year, Indiana won the Big Ten outright and their starters, four of whom have left the program for either the NBA or graduation, accounted for 76% of the Hoosiers’ scoring. Add in Will Sheehey’s 9.5 ppg, and that number jumps to 88%. Nearly all of Indiana’s scoring came from their top six players last year while most of the freshman class got a chance to get acclimated to collegiate practices, workouts, and the higher level of competition at their own pace. But this year has been different.

Rhetoric has become reality for the young Hoosiers. They’ve missed the steadying contributions of last year’s upperclassmen. They aren’t fielding much NBA-ready talent. Their inexperience has led to a near-constant torrent of turnovers. Their shooting from beyond the arc has inhibited their ability to create the space their offense needs to operate. Indiana’s young players, talented though they may be, have been forced into action early and often. This year’s team isn’t likely to compete for the Big Ten title, but they do have enough talent to make the NCAAs if their young players continue to emerge.

This year, Yogi Ferrell, Will Sheehey, Troy Williams, Jeremy Hollowell,  and Noah Vonleh have started every single game for the Indiana Hoosiers save a rare Jeff Howard sighting against Evansville on November 26th. Those five have accounted for 68% of Indiana’s scoring. Add in 10.8 ppg from Evan Gordon, this year’s 6th man, and you’ve got 81% of Indiana’s scoring, a far cry from the near 90% mark that last year’s top 6 players posted. There has been a lot more pressure on players at the end of the bench. From Luke Fischer to Stanford Robinson to Devin Davis, Tom Crean has called on his bench to contribute more this season. Part of the results to this point, no doubt, reflect players at the end of the bench getting minutes now that they simply won’t once the Big Ten season rolls around but with less scoring ability in the starting unit it’s fair to expect that Indiana’s reserves will play a bigger role this year than last.

But who will those role players be? Evan Gordon will obviously be a major contributor; he’s played nearly as many minutes as starter Noah Vonleh to this point and he’s easily the team’s 2nd best 3-point shooter at only 34.6%. Indiana can't shoot and Gordon's ability to be even marginal from three will earn him plenty of minutes. After that, the picture is murkier. Freshman Luke Fischer has played more as he has continued to recover from the torn labrum he suffered before the season began. With his brace off, he has flashed ability to rebound and score, tallying 10 points in his last outing. Noah Vonleh will spend plenty of time on the bench in foul trouble this year, especially once he gets a chance to defend older, stronger, more experienced guys like Adreian Payne, AJ Hammons, and Frank Kaminsky. Depending on how much time Noah spends planted on the pine, Hanner Mosquera-Perea could also be a key factor for the Hoosiers. The Columbian native has become much better situated on the floor this year and has made more than a few nifty moves around the basket in the spot minutes he has enjoyed so far.

After those three, minutes will probably be much harder to come by. Freshmen Stanford Robinson and Devin Davis both have athleticism and mental toughness to spare, but they still need to cultivate their talent and expand their offensive repertoire. Davis is the best rebounder on Indiana’s roster not named Noah Vonleh and has a knack for defense, but he leaves much to be desired on the offensive end, he fouls too much, and he's the single most turnover-prone member of a team that has already been troubled by turnover issues. Stanford Robinson always brings tremendous effort and is aggressive offensively, but he has also stopped the ball on the offensive end and has turned it over too often himself. I’d be surprised if neither of these guys got minutes in Big Ten play, but I’d also be surprised if either of them averaged 10 minutes per game in conference play.

So far, what’s clear is that Indiana will need more production from their bench than they did when they could rely on last year’s veteran roster.  Evan Gordon is a lock for big minutes off the bench in conference play, thanks to his shooting and experience as a collegiate player. Now that Luke Fischer is healthy, he figures to be the first sub behind Noah Vonleh. Mosquera-Perea, Robinson, and Davis will all get chances, though they may not play as frequently, to show that they can chip in and be part of the team.  Like everything with these young Hoosiers, whether they will or won’t do enough to help their team get to the NCAA tournament remains to be seen. So far, it looks like the bench could end up being a very productive unit as Fischer becomes healthier and roles become defined early on in conference play. But Gordon will need to continue to become more comfortable in the Hoosier offense, and the young players will need to develop confidence to realize that promise. If they can’t, the Hoosiers’ over-taxed starters don’t look ready to lead this team to the NCAAs.