Indiana’s first game of the season might be their toughest.
The 11th-ranked Hoosiers will meet third-ranked Kansas (9PM ET, ESPN) in Hawaii on Friday as part of the State Farm Armed Forces Classic.
The Jayhawks are the highest-ranked team on Indiana’s schedule and, like the Hoosiers, bring back an experienced group that is coming off a conference championship.
Indiana’s regular-season Big Ten title came as a bit of a surprise last year.
The 2015-16 Hoosiers opened the season with a 5-3 record, as their defense struggled to slow anyone early. They rebounded with five straight nonconference wins, but weren’t expected to compete for the conference crown after starting guard James Blackmon Jr. was injured just prior to the start of the Big Ten schedule.
But Indiana, led by senior point guard Yogi Ferrell, jumped out of the gates in the Big Ten, winning their first seven games to take control of the conference race. They hit a lull during the middle of the conference schedule, but closed it out with five straight wins to claim their second conference title in four years.
While Indiana surprised some people last year, the Kansas train kept on rolling. The Jayhawks won their 12th consecutive conference championship despite losing three of their first eight conference games.
And then Kansas returned to being Kansas. The Jayhawks won their final 11 conference games to cruise to the regular season title, then rolled through the Big 12 Tournament.
The two blue bloods haven’t faced off since 1995, when No. 1 Kansas recorded a 91-83 home win over Indiana. The Hoosiers lead the all-time series, 7-6, although the Jayhawks have won six of the past seven.
Indiana coach Tom Crean was near the top of everyone’s hot seat list entering last season, but enters the 2016-17 season on firm ground.
Crean welcomes back preseason all-Big Ten picks Blackmon and Thomas Bryant. Bryant, a 6’10” sophomore center, should be one of the most dominant, imposing players in the conference after passing on the NBA Draft. Bryant average 11.9 points and 5.8 rebounds per game on 68.3 percent shooting last season, and will likely see his usage increase with the loss of Ferrell (17.3 ppg) and Troy Williams (13.3 ppg).
Blackmon will also make up for some of the departed scoring. The junior guard averaged 15.8 points per game in 13 games prior to his injury last year. He might come back with a bit of a chip on his shoulder after hearing all last season about how the Hoosiers were playing better without him.
Finally, everyone’s favorite player from the second half of last season, OG Anunoby, is expected to make a big leap in his sophomore year. The 6’8” forward came out of nowhere last year, primarily using his length and tireless athleticism to create havoc. Anunoby averaged just 4.9 points and 2.6 rebounds per game last year, solely off effort as the Hoosiers weren’t running any plays for him. That will change this season, and those numbers are likely to skyrocket.
It’ll be interesting to watch how the Hoosiers offense flows on Friday. There will certainly be a bit of an adjustment period after Ferrell ran so much of the action the past four years. But there will be a number of fun matchups to watch. Kansas has an experienced backcourt in senior Frank Mason III (12.9 ppg) and junior Devonte’ Graham (11.3 ppg), their third and fourth leading scorers from last season. And Bryant will have a physical equal in senior center Landen Lucas, who stands at 6’10”, 250 pounds.
But the most fascinating matchup may be Anunoby and Kansas freshman Josh Jackson. It’ll be the first chance the nation gets to see the 6’8” McDonald’s All-American, who is one of the most hyped players in the nation, regardless of class.
The game was originally scheduled to be played on a hangar at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, but has been moved to the University of Hawaii’s Stan Sheriff Center to prevent the slippery court conditions that have caused the Armed Forces Classic games to be cancelled in the past. The classic will open up with another matchup of blue bloods, as Arizona takes on Michigan State.