It might be cliche for me to describe the upcoming season as "A Season on the Brink" for Indiana coach Tom Crean, but it's certainly accurate. After two straight seasons where his teams have failed to meet the sky-high expectations of the Hoosier faithful, Crean needs a deep tournament run to win back the support of much of the fanbase.
Indiana's 2014-15 season was the epitome of up-and-down. After a slow start that included an embarrassing home loss to Eastern Washington, the Hoosiers caught fire in December and January--so much so that Crean was a strong candidate for Coach of the Year (no, seriously). But over the course of the season, not having a legitimate post player caused Indiana to struggle, despite all the talented perimeter players the Hoosiers boasted.
As IU looks ahead to next season, these three players are the most important on the roster, and should help bolster Indiana to a strong bounce-back year.
#1. Yogi Ferrell
No player in college basketball can take over a game the way Yogi can. He is the closest thing we'll see this season to a Kemba or a Shabazz. It's been great to watch his growth in college, from a freshman who often deferred to Jordan Hulls, to a dynamic scorer and distributor. As far as the 2015-16 season is concerned, the Hoosiers will go as far as Ferrell leads them. He became much more of a leader last season. Ferrell shot less but more efficiently (scorching the nets with 43/41/86 shooting splits); racked up more assists but turned the ball over far less.
There's not a whole lot that Ferrell can't do. He can create his own shot off the dribble with ease, and is a lights-out jump-shooter. And despite his diminutive stature, he is great at finishing in the lane against much taller defenders. No defender in the conference can consistently stop him in one on one situations--Ferrell's first step is too quick and his dribbling ability is simply too much.
Part of Ferrell's job this year will be keeping everyone happy. The Hoosiers have arguably the most backcourt talent in the country, and Ferrell will have no shortage of options when he drives and kicks. An added benefit of having shooters like Nick Zeisloft, Collin Hartman, James Blackmon Jr., and Robert Johnson is that perimeter defenders will be hesitant to help on Ferrell's drives to the rim--which will result in countless easy layups.
Defensively, Ferrell is a pest. Opponents will try to get Ferrell in pick and roll situations to force him to switch onto a post player. But here's the thing: Ferrell fronts relentlessly and prevents entry passes from happening. Because of this you could say (completely straight-faced) that Ferrell was Indiana's best post defender last season. This is both a commendation of Ferrell's defensive ability and an indictment of what Hanner Mosquera-Perea considered "playing defense" (I can't stress enough how lost HMP always looked on defense). Ferrell is the heart of the Hoosiers, and should have a fantastic senior campaign.
#2. Troy Williams
There may not be a more electric player in college basketball than Williams. I've gone into a statistical breakdown of his game, which you can read here. Among his highlights:
- Shooting a ridiculous 55 percent on two point field goals through his first two seasons
- Last season, corralled 21.7 percent of available defensive rebounds and 15.7 percent of all available rebounds (AJ Hammons and Alex Olah are the only returning Big Ten players with comparable numbers, and both are 7-footers)
#3. Thomas Bryant
A number of variables contributed to a dearth of options at the center position last season. Noah Vonleh left for the NBA a year too early (continuing the tradition that Cody Zeller started), and Luke Fischer's midseason transfer in 2013 left the Hoosiers without a reliable post presence.
Crean got a great signing to fill that void in Bryant. ESPN ranked the 6'10", 220 pound behemoth as the 20th best player in the Class of 2015, and Bryant is expected to deliver on that hype. His versatile offensive game allows him to score from the post, rolling to the basket, and from the perimeter. So if you're scoring at home, Indiana will be able to field a lot of lineups in which all five players can knock down a three. Good luck, everyone else.
Bryant also gives Indiana something it hasn't had in a while--a space eater. Devin Davis would have fit that description as well, but he's too short to play center consistently and made enough questionable decisions that he's no longer with the program. Bryant is going to be difficult for opponents to bully, and he also is the rim protector Indiana missed last season. Our own Thomas Beindit recently took a look at Indiana's lack of shot blocking last season, which you can see here.
Indiana 2014-15 Defensive Shot Blocking Stats:
Crean knows that a big part of last season's defensive struggles was the lack of a shot blocker, which allowed opponents to score inside at will. Not that I have anything against Mosquera-Perea (he said with thinly veiled sarcasm), but Bryant is going to be much, much better at interior defense than anyone on last year's team. The Hoosiers won't suddenly become Virginia-esque on defense, but their opponent's field goal percentage should dip considerably.
It's no coincidence that the three players I deemed most important all bring a strong defensive skill set to the table. Indiana already has a plethora of offensive options, but a vastly improved defense is the only way it goes from a good team to a great one.