There is no team in the B1G Conference ready to move on more from last season and the off season than Indiana. The Hoosiers finished one of the most disappointing seasons in recent memory at 17-15 and missed both the NCAA and NIT post season tournaments after being ranked #24 in the pre-season. It was clear throughout the season to anyone that watched that Indiana lacked the team chemistry to be successful at this level of basketball. That became even more evident with Noah Vonleh not thinking twice about bolting to the NBA followed by several transfers such as Jeremy Hollowell, Austin Etherington, Peter Jurkin, and Luke Fischer (mid-season). In addition - none of the walk-ons returned which was the biggest sign to me that things weren't in good shape in the locker room.
The summer seemed to be playing out well. The Hoosiers looked like a really good basketball team in a 5 game summer trip to Canada where they went 4-1. Troy Williams and Stanford Robinson seemed to have spent a lot of time on the court really improving their game as it would be their progress that would drive this team to better results this season. Then came November. In the final days before the new season began, which every fan in Hoosier Nation was so looking forward to, it all came crashing down. In the wee hours of November 1st, Emmitt Holt dropped Devin Davis off in the parking lot of Indiana's football stadium and got back on the road only to find Davis jumping in front of his moving vehicle moments later which knocked him unconscious at the scene with what Coach Crean has later described as a "traumatic brain injury." Most in Hoosier Nation that got this news early thought they were just having a bad dream. How could something like this happen at Indiana of all schools? It's supposed to be different here. Unfortunately, it was only beginning of bad news surrounding the program. It was reported by ESPN on November 3rd that both Troy Williams and Stanford Robinson failed drug tests and would suspended 4 games each to go along with Holt's 4 game suspension for the previous incident. This brought on a tidal wave of opinions - most of which called for change at the top of the Indiana program.
This is how the Indiana program now goes into the 2014-15 season - as one of the most interesting case studies in years of how a team responds to adversity.
Projected Starting Lineup
G - Jr Kevin Yogi Ferrell (6'0")
G - Fr James Blackmon Jr. (6'4")
G - So Stanford Robinson (6'4")
F - So Troy Williams (6'7")
F - Jr Hanner Mosquera-Perea (6'9")
This lineup obviously does not consider the suspensions that are in place to start the season. The only spot not 100% locked in is Robinson as the third guard. Nick Zeisloft and Robert Johnson have been coming on strong with each having a strong performance in the exhibition season, and either could end up claiming that spot with a strong opening to the season before Robinson returns.
What to Watch For
Start of the season - How will Indiana fare in the first two games of the season without Williams, Robinson, and Holt? The Hoosiers will likely be going with a four guard starting lineup in these contests and will also have very little depth off the bench in case of injury or foul trouble. The second of these games involves former Indiana Head Coachand if Indiana fails to win that game - the program may be in for quite a bit more press - and not good press.
Yogi Ferrell versus Nic Moore - The Hoosiers get an early season test on November 20th against SMU. While this game has taken a bit of a hit with Emmanuel Mudiay (#1 ranked PG) deciding to forgo college for a $1.2M contract in China, it should still be a high quality game to watch given the match-up of point guards from the state of Indiana- Ferrell & Moore. Both are the unquestioned leaders of their respective teams and both were the leading scorers a year ago. Can either of these players shut the other down to give his team the best chance at victory?
Indiana's December Slate of Games - The Hoosiers play Pittsburgh at home to start the month and then have neutral court games against Louisville, Butler, and Georgetown. While there is no Kentucky on this list, it is a pretty tough schedule and will be a key factor in whether the Hoosiers have a good enough resume at the end of the season to warrant consideration for the NCAA Tournament
Indiana's size come Big Ten season - While the lack of size shouldn't impact Indiana too much in the non-conference season, it will likely play a role in many conference contests. There are going to be plenty of times this season that Indiana doesn't have a player on the court taller than 6'7" and that is going to very interesting to watch against the Frank Kaminsky's and A.J. Hammons' of the world. What type of scheme will Indiana run to make up for this lack of size and will it cause enough disruptions on the offensive end to force the hand of the opposing team?
Tom Crean's situation - Crean has taken a ton of heat since the start of November and whether it is deserved or not - it's there. Will the team rally around him and play with the chemistry that was sorely missed last season or will the events to start the season send this team into a tailspin where certain players worry about only their numbers as they try to skip town as quickly as possible? Depending which way this goes will have a large impact on the future of Tom Crean. If the Hoosiers struggle this season, the pressure from the fans and the national media is only going to build and a program that had so much promise only a few years ago could be back at ground zero quickly.
Who to Watch For
James Blackmon Jr. - He is the favorite to win Freshman of the Year in the B1G and he will likely lead the Hoosiers in scoring this year as I expect Yogi Ferrell to move more into a distributor role which fits his game much better. Blackmon was the leading scorer on the Canadian trip and also the first exhibition game against Northwood where he dropped 26 points on 7-11 shooting including 10-10 from the line. He is efficient and extremely smooth with this jumper and will be a favorite for many fans all year long.
Hanner Perea - As the lone expected contributor down low, Hanner has what can easily be deemed the most important role on this team. He needs to be an effective rebounder and defender without fouling and he needs to contribute 7 - 9 points per game on the offensive end to provide enough of a threat for the opposing defense to worry about him. In addition, he can't keep giving the ball away which means concentrating on the catch a little more. It's been a problem his whole career and showed again against Northwood with 4 of the team's 10 turnovers. Hanner has a chance to take a giant leap forward this year and no other player will be as intriguing to watch.
Nick Zeisloft - He averaged 6.9 points per game a year ago at Illinois State, but has a much better fit on this Indiana roster. It showed on the Canada trip where he shot 55% from three and in the first exhibition game against Northwood where he dropped 24 points on the Timberwolves including 4-8 from three. I would expect Zeisloft to be the first man off the bench and possibly even start over Stanford Robinson and with all of the slashers and creators on this team - he is very likely to get a lot of open shots. If he can knock down threes at even a 40% clip, he is going to have a major impact of this team's ability to make a run this year.
Troy Williams - I've stated before that I think Williams is the X-Factor on this roster. He has the highest ceiling of any returning player if he puts in the work necessary to improve. I think the question is whether he put in that time or not. With news of his 4 game suspension to start the season, that doesn't give me the feeling that he has taken on the additional effort that made guys like Victor Oladipo and Will Sheehey so good. If Williams can cut down on the turnovers and work on getting to the rim and not settling for jump shots - he could be in for a large year. It will also be very key to watch him from a defensive perspective as he will likely be playing the center spot at times this season.
Yogi Ferrell - This seems like an obvious pick, but I think Yogi needs to change his game this year for the Hoosiers to be successful. He was the clear go to scorer last year and averaged more than 17 points per contest. There are other scorers on this Indiana team and I believe Yogi needs to take on more of a distributor mentality. If his point productive dropped 5 points a game, but his assist to turnover ratio increased - I think it would really benefit Indiana as a team. It will be very interesting to watch what type of role Ferrell takes on with this roster.
So where do I think the Hoosiers will finish up this year? I have stated before that I think Indiana can maneuver through the non-conference at 11-2 this season and none of the events of the past couple weeks change my opinion on that. I think Indiana will have a tough time with Louisville in Madison Square and likely lose one more of the following: SMU, Pittsburgh, Butler, and Georgetown. If the Hoosiers can get through that gauntlet with only two losses, it could provide the necessary momentum to head into another tough B1G Conference season.
The Hoosiers open up conference play with road games against Nebraska and Michigan State before returning home to face Ohio State. It is hard to find a tougher start for any B1G team and it will be crucial that Indiana finds a way to get one win there. I think the game against Ohio State is most likely given that it is a home game and Indiana has a penchant for knocking off top teams at home - especially in recent years. Not having Devin Davis available will hurt this team down low in conference play, but I think they still have enough talent to get to 10-8 or 9-9 in conference. That should be good enough for a tournament bid if the non-conference season goes well.