The defending Big Ten regular season champions will enter the 2016-2017 season with high expectations once again. The Hoosiers reached the Sweet 16 for the third time in Tom Crean’s tenure and for the third time Indiana was bounced out of the tournament without too much trouble.
However, for Indiana to have a chance to improve on last season’s tournament appearance, there a few questions that need to be answered between now and next March.
Who is going to play point guard on this team?
Saying Yogi Ferrell leaves a hole at the point guard position may be a bit of an understatement. It’s not every day that your school’s all-time assist leader and the conference’s seventh all-time assist man walks through the door. On top of that, the Hoosiers need to find someone to make up for the 17 points per game that Ferrell scored last season.
The answer may very well be "point guard by committee" this season. Pitt Panthers transfer Josh Newkirk will be eligible after sitting out last season, but his 5.9 point, 2.7 assist averages probably doesn’t instill confidence in Hoosier Nation that he is the answer.
Another answer may come in the form of James Blackmon Jr. and/or Robert Johnson moving from the 2 to the 1. Based on scoring output, the more likely of the two is Johnson to make the move and this could be the avenue he has been looking for to assert himself as an integral part of this program. Johnson did average over 3 assists per game last season.
The final answer to this question may lie with the newcomers to the program. Curtis Jones and Devonte Green are both incoming freshman that could establish themselves early as contributing guards. Jones is a former teammate of Hoosier big man Thomas Bryant, while Green is a 6-foot-1-inch "combo guard", which at that size means a point guard with the ability to shoot the rock.
Can OG Anunoby Be Consistent Throughout An Entire Season?
Extended stays in the NCAA Tournament are typically beneficial to younger players in a program. This past season was no different as OG Anunoby became the darling "draft sleeper."
Anunoby has been praised for his defensive intensity, but offensive consistency needs to be there this season. The now sophomore forward scored in double figures just five times last season, while going scoreless in seven contests.
Going hand-in-hand with this is if Thomas Bryant can establish himself as the leader if this team in his sophomore season. (A better question to pose may have been, "can the sophomores take leadership roles this season," but you’re getting an extra question for free essentially, so don’t complain.) Where Collin Hartman will be the senior leader and lead the program by example and maturity, Bryant needs to lead the team by being the guy that puts the team on his back down the stretch of close games.
Bryant showed issues with immaturity early on last season, arguing with teammates when things weren’t going right on the floor. He wears his emotions on his sleeve and there is nothing wrong with that, especially if he can fire up his teammates during their high-profile games.
Scoring 11.9 points per game while shooting at a 68.3-percent clip was certainly a hell of freshman year, improving on that could make him a national superstar this season.
Will a new venue end the Hoosiers’ inability to play in the Big Ten Tournament?
I think this clip sums up Indiana’s history in the Big Ten Tournament.
The Hoosiers have played in the tournament finals just once (2001) and other than that, the tournament seems to be an afterthought for the program. For the first time ever the conference tournament will be played somewhere other than Chicago or Indianapolis (the 2017 tournament will be played in D.C. because nothing screams "standing room only" like playing a Big Ten tourney in ACC country).
Now that Indiana has tied Purdue for most regular season titles in the conference, the Boilermakers’ ace in the hole argument between the bitter rivals is their one tournament title (2009). Oh, that and the large lead that Purdue has in the head-to-head standings, which of course Indiana will combat with the fact that many of the Boilermakers’ wins came when there was a tip-off after every made basketball. Yes, the arguments in the rivalry do get that fickle.
Indiana’s lack of Big Ten postseason success could be placed on the tournament never really having a profound effect on the Hoosiers’ NCAA Tournament bid. In the Tom Crean era, either the team has had absolutely no chance or the team was safely in.
In the grand scheme of things, the Big Ten tournament probably won’t mean anything for this edition of the Hoosiers, but it certainly feels like an oddity that a perennial program in the conference has struggled to just make the weekend in the tournament.
The first two questions finding a positive answer could lead to Indiana also finding success in the conference tournament. Who knows, maybe that could be the springboard to get this program back past the Sweet Sixteen.