The Indiana Hoosiers need a positive season to silence the growing voices for change in the program. While most "experts" believe the lack of a consistent big man down low will be the downfall of the 2014-15 Hoosiers, I believe what they are overlooking is the spectacular strength of this team's backcourt. I would be very surprised, when this season is in the books, if we don't look back and find the Indiana backcourt as the best in the B1G Conference and frankly one of the best in the entire country. Big men may win championships, but terrific guards win games - and that is exactly what Indiana needs to do this season - just win games.
This year's team features a Player of the Year candidate in Kevin Yogi Ferrell and a Freshman of the Year candidate in James Blackmon Jr in the backcourt. In addition, the Hoosiers welcome two new sharpshooters to the team - one of which is an incoming transfer and one of which is another highly touted freshman. Indiana struggled to shoot the ball last year and I think it is safe to say that will not be an issue this season. If you look back at the great Hoosier squads of the past - they all shoot the ball incredibly well. On paper, this team will do exactly that and it will fun to watch this backcourt try and carry the team all season long.
Let's take a look at how the Indiana guards will shake out this season.
It is still hard to say whether the Hoosiers will go with a three guard lineup, or stick to the traditional two guard lineup. For the sake of this preview series, I am going to go with three guards as that has been where Coach Crean has tended to the fall the past few seasons - and let's face it - the guards are where the majority of the talent is this year.
Kevin "Yogi" Ferrell (6'0") - Even with the hoopla surrounding a couple of the new comers and the improvement of some returning players - let's be clear - this is Yogi Ferrell's team. Yogi is undeniably the team leader and he will be the guy that carries this team to a successful season or a disappointing season. Part of that is going to be by his leadership on the court, but a lot of it is going to driven by his leadership off the court. Yogi has to be the one demanding excellence all day every day from each player and he has to be the one mentoring the younger guys and keeping them focused on improving at the game of basketball. Coach Crean can only do so much with the practice time he is allotted, and the upperclassmen have to run the team outside of that time. Yogi has had the success to garner attention from his younger teammates as he averaged 17.3 points per game last season which was good for fourth in the B1G. He also led the conference in three point field goals made (2.8) and was third in free throw percentage (82.4%). While he was sixth in the conference in assists (3.9) - he is capable of doing much more than that and I think you will see that with the added player makers he has to rely on this season. While there are many other possible Player of the Year candidates in the B1G - I think Yogi Ferrell will walk away with the award at the conclusion of the season, and that will be great news for Hoosier fans as it will likely mean the team was very successful as well.
James Blackmon Jr. (6'4") - Only D'Angelo Russell of the Ohio State Buckeyes has even remotely received the kind of attention Blackmon has gotten since his commitment to Indiana over hated rival Kentucky. While he may not be viewed as the kind of savior Cody Zeller was viewed as - he is coming in at an important time for Indiana basketball and he is coming in to fill what was a large void last season - shooting / scoring. The Indiana faithful got a preview of just that on the Canada trip this summer where Blackmon led the team with 18.8 points per game. He is viewed by most as the best pure shooter in the 2014 class and that is exactly what Indiana needs after a dismal season of shooting. He comes in as the eighth all-time leading high school scorer in Indiana with 2,387 points and was named a McDonalds All-American (the 28th Hoosier in that category). There are extremely high expectations for Blackmon, and I honestly believe he will live up to them which will mean he is the runaway Freshman of the Year in the conference and may have an outside shot at the Player of the Year award if his and Indiana's season go extremely well.
Stanford Robinson (6'4") - While Robinson trailed a couple other guards in minutes on the Canada trip, I have to believe he will get the starting nod this season. After all, he did tie Blackmon for the most points per minute played on that trip at .71. However, I don't think he gets this starting spot for his scoring - but instead for his defense and slashing ability. He is arguably Indiana's best defender and defense is going to play a key role this season as the Hoosiers will need to do most things well to overcome the apparent deficit down low. In addition, the Hoosiers are going to have plenty of shooters on the perimeter with no real post presence to draw the defense away. It is going to be critical that Robinson moves off the ball extremely well to put pressure on the defense and create open shots for the spot up shooters. It is also going to be critical that Robinson makes some free throws this season. He shot only 60% from the line last year which is unacceptable from a guard on any level of basketball. Interestingly enough, he has switched shooting hands on the advice of former teammate Will Sheehey and will now be shooting right handed. I can't remember a similar switch at this point in someone's career, but all feedback has been positive so far. If he is able to step up and hit 75% of his free throw attempts, he will become that much more dangerous as a slasher to the basket.
There is going to be a lot of pressure put on Indiana's backcourt this season and they are going to have to shoulder a lot of the load. The good news for Hoosier fans is there is a lot of depth to this position. In addition to switching out to a two guard lineup which would add one of the above to the bench - Indiana has the ability to go a couple more deep without losing much punch.
Nick Zeisloft (6'4") - Coach Crean needed to address the shooting woes of last year's roster and one of the ways he chose to do that was accept the transfer of Zeisloft from Illinois State. He averaged 6.9 points per game at ISU last season which doesn't blow you away, but he wasn't brought in as a pure scorer. He was brought in to provide pure three point shooting not seen since the days of Matt Roth in Bloomington. Zeisloft has already given Hoosier fans a taste of that core competency - shooting 55% from down town in Canada. Let me remind you the three point line was a foot further back there as well. I see Zeisloft providing the energy off the bench through his three point shot that Indiana will need at various points this season. He is also known as a great team leader and will share some of that role with Yogi Ferrell.
Robert Johnson (6'3") - Johnson represents the other incoming freshman, besides Blackmon, who has received a decent amount of hype in Bloomington. Many regard him as the second best pure shooter in the 2014 class and he will also likely see a lot of minutes this year backing up the starting guards above. He was 4th in total minutes in Canada and averaged 9.8 points per contest while also pulling down a very respectable 4.6 boards per game. Johnson likely would have a good opportunity to start on most other B1G teams, but this Hoosier team is just too loaded in the backcourt for that to be the case barring any injuries this season.
Overall Grade: A
While there are no weaknesses above, the one thing to keep an eye on is the team chemistry in the backcourt. It seemed to work well in Canada, but is there going to be enough shots to go around and satisfy everyone? I do think Yogi Ferrell will take on more of a distributor role this season, but this will be a key thing to watch early on and could give a glimpse into this team's chances down the stretch.