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2019-’20 Indiana Hoosiers Basketball Season Preview

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BTPowerhouse previews the upcoming season for the Indiana Hoosiers and what fans should expect from the program heading into the 2019-’20 season.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Media Day Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

The 2019-’20 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2019-’20 ‘season with analysis on each program’s previous season, offseason departures, new additions, strengths, weakness, top player, and top storylines. Each post will also include predictions on each team’s starting lineup, season performance and commentary from a local “insider” who covers said team.

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Things are never as easy as they appear.

It’s an old saying, but one that comes from years of wisdom. While people may nod their heads when they hear it, it’s hard to appreciate skill until you see a true expert in their craft. Seeing a master chef make a great dish or a doctor perform surgery. They make it look so easy, but deep down, we know how hard it really is.

The same expertise is needed for building a college basketball program. The task might seem easy on paper, but it’s an incredibly difficult task. It takes hard work, dedication, and resiliency.

And it also takes a little bit of luck.

Indiana has spent the better part of 20 years trying to resurrect what it used to be. We’ve heard plenty of discussion about whether that’s possible in the modern era of college basketball and plenty of criticism about what the Hoosiers have done (or failed to do) on the court. Realistically, Indiana will probably never be what it was under the heights of Bob Knight. It’s a bygone era that most of the top programs out there today can’t even duplicate.

But even if Indiana can’t reach those heights, we know the Hoosiers can do more than what the program has done in recent years. There have been some remarkable moments during that stretch, but the Hoosiers just can’t seem to figure it out. Since making the Final Four in 2002, Indiana missed the NCAA Tournament nine times in the following 17 years. The Hoosiers also won just two conference titles during that time. Mike Davis faded, Kelvin Sampson got run out of town, Tom Crean failed, and the program has now turned to Archie Miller in the hopes of getting things back on track.

What’s been particularly frustrating for fans in recent years is the fact that the program has seemed to do everything it was supposed to do. Indiana has recruited well, developed some stars, and has changed coaches when it became necessary. It just doesn’t seem like things should be this hard for a program like Indiana. Some of the down years are understandable, but the Hoosiers have failed most of the time with talented rosters.

The latest example of this came last year. Indiana landed a superstar recruit in Romeo Langford and he was joining a team that already had some nice pieces. Add in a solid rising sophomore class and some other talented newcomers like Jerome Hunter and it looked like a team that could surprise. Instead, Indiana finished 19-16 overall and missed the NCAA Tournament for the third-straight season.

And what was the primary factor leading to the team’s struggles?

Bad luck, naturally.

Now, admittedly, Indiana didn’t miss the NCAAs solely because of bad luck. There were other factors, but if you look back at the season, that’s what defined things, yet again, for the Hoosiers. The team started 12-2 overall and then fell apart when key players like Langford and guard Robert Phinisee got banged up. Throw in the early loss of Hunter and the limited backcourt depth and many of the struggles are easy to understand.

That’s generally been the story of Indiana basketball for much of the last 20 years. Talented rosters undone by bad breaks. Whether it’s a key loss here or an injury there, the gist of the story has been the same. It’s how a program that has recruited so well hasn’t been able to live up to the hype. And it’s why Miller was initially brought in. A coach that could find ways to win with lesser talent.

The hope, once again, is that things can finally get figured out this season. Langford and Morgan are now gone, but the roster remains impressive. Phinisee returns in the backcourt, the team’s depth pieces on the wing return, Hunter should be back and healthy, and Indiana adds a really solid group of newcomers, including a transfer big man to make up for some of Morgan’s departure. All the general indicators are there, but it’s hard to have faith given all the bad breaks over the years.

So, can Indiana finally get it done? Let’s take a look at this year’s Hoosiers.

BTPowerhouse Season Preview Podcast

Along with reading BTPowerhouse’s season preview post for the Indiana Hoosiers, make sure to check out the site’s podcast preview of the Hoosiers, featuring BTPowerhouse Manager Thomas Beindit and Seth Tow breaking down Indiana’s’ roster, incoming recruits, schedule, and season outlook.

1. 2018-’19 Season Performance

  • Record: 19-16 (8-12)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #52
  • NET Rating: #56
  • Postseason Appearance: NIT

Indiana’s performance during last season was addressed briefly above, but let’s recap it briefly here. The Hoosiers jumped out to a 12-2 start to the season, lost 12 of the team’s next 13 games, and briefly recovered in the season’s last few weeks before falling to Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament, which effectively ended the team’s season. It was one of the more unusual routes you will ever to get to a 19-16 overall record.

The story of the season, though, was largely defined by Phinisee. One can make a pretty convincing argument that the team’s vast variations between good and bad swung with his production. To start, his mid-season injury occurred right around the time Indiana began fading. And moreover, just look at how the team varied based on his play:

Indiana’s Record Last Season:

  • When Phinisee Had 20 Mins And a 100+ ORTG: 11-4
  • All Other Games: 8-12

That statistic won’t tell you everything about the Hoosiers, but it’s noteworthy. And it’s not a crazy conclusion, either. Indiana’s weakness last season was always going to be the backcourt. When Phinisee showed up and played well, he fixed arguably the team’s primary issue. But when he was sidelined and/or limited, Indiana’s biggest issue resurfaced and the team struggled. And by the time he was back, too much damage had already been done. Imagine Phinisee as that piece of duct tape placed on the hole in the boat. The boat works pretty well with it there, but if it gets pulled away, things start fading in a hurry.

Admittedly, that takeaway probably won’t comfort many Hoosier fans. We don’t know exactly what would have happened if Phinisee was healthy all season, but it’s hard to believe Indiana would have finished 19-16 overall and ended up in the NIT. My guess is that the team would have still lost a fair share of games, but would have been able to beat teams like Nebraska, Northwestern, and Rutgers during league play. And if the team wins those three games, it probably makes the NCAA Tournament.

Last season will likely go down as one of those “what if” campaigns in Bloomington. It was never going to be a Final Four squad, but if things break a little differently, a Sweet 16 run wouldn’t have been out of line. The team just needed a little more luck and didn’t get it.

Highlights of the season included the two wins over Michigan State, the wins over Louisville and Marquette at home, and the Crossroads Classic win against Butler. Low points of the season included the loss to Rutgers, two losses to arch-rival Purdue, and the crushing loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament.

Individual statistical leaders were Romeo Langford, Juwan Morgan, Rob Phinisee. Langford led the team in minutes and usage among contributors. Morgan led the team in points, rebounds, blocks, steals, and win shares. Phinisee led the team in assists.

2. Offseason Exits

There’s no sugarcoating things here. Indiana got absolutely smacked with regard to offseason departures. The roster wasn’t gutted, but Hoosier fans are going to see a lot of familiar faces go out the door. Teams can overcome those kinds of losses and this is something Indiana is going to have to try and do this season. All told, Indiana lost nine players from last season’s roster. That’s not going to be easy to overcome.

The biggest departures undoubtedly come from Langford and Morgan. The two both started at least 30 games last season and were the team’s top scorers. Add in Morgan’s rebounding and Langford’s skillset in transition and in the lane and these departures are going to leave a mark. Some might think Langford underwhelmed last season, but he was still one of the Big Ten’s better freshmen. And Morgan had a really solid four-year career.

Fitzner and McRoberts will also be notable departures. While neither were massive contributors for the team, both did consistently get on the floor, each finishing at around 25 percent of team minutes played. The two provided valuable frontcourt depth when needed during the course of last season. Each did graduate, so at least these departures were expected by the coaching staff.

The good news for Hoosier fans is that the final five departures come from players with mixed contributions. Johnny Jager and Quentin Taylor graduated and Vijay Blackmon, Jake Forrester, and Clifton Moore transferred. Simply put, none of these players really did much for the Hoosiers last season. Moore actually played the most of the group and had 61 total minutes last season. In fact, Blackmon, Jager, and Taylor didn’t even play in 10 games. These are losses that will be felt more so in practice and in the years ahead than in the immediate future. For example, Forrester didn’t play much last year, but was a true freshman and a four-star prospect before arriving. He would have been nice to have moving into his sophomore season.

Indiana will have more than enough to overcome these departures. However, losing two starters, two depth pieces, and a few prospects isn’t what you like to see heading into a season. Finding a way to fill these spots in the lineup might be Miller’s biggest challenge this season.

3. New Additions

This season, the Hoosiers will be adding two new recruits, a transfer, and three walk-ons. The recruits are Armaan Franklin and Trayce Jackson-Davis. Franklin is listed as a shooting guard and Jackson-Davis as a power forward. Jackson-Davis is rated as a four-star prospect and Franklin is rated as a three-star by 247Sports. The three incoming walk-ons are Cooper Bybee, Adrian Chapman, and Nathan Childress. It is worth noting that Bybee arrives via the JUCO route, rather than as a traditional high school prospect.

Given his recruiting rankings, it’s not surprising that Jackson-Davis is the player receiving the most attention. He’s listed at 6-foot-9 and 245 pounds and many think he could be an early contributor next season. Much of this will depend on how Indiana’s deep, but unproven returning frontcourt group performs. It seems reasonable to expect Jackson-Davis to get 15 to 20 minutes a game early and grow from there. Franklin will likely be buried on the depth chart behind Indiana’s relatively proven backcourt.

The other major offseason addition for Indiana is Joey Brunk, who transferred into the program from Butler. He split time in the frontcourt for the Bulldogs last season, but is generally considered a pretty good offensive rebounder. There’s little denying that he was added to this roster to provide depth and experience alongside Jackson-Davis as he arrives at the program. Unfortunately, Brunk won’t offer a ton from outside the arc and is not generally considered to be a great defender.

There’s little debating that this group is less talented than the group of newcomers that arrived next year. However, that doesn’t mean this is a bad group, either. Jackson-Davis could be one of the best freshmen in the league this season, Brunk should fill a key void upfront, and another prospect that’s decent as well. Hoosier fans will hope Franklin can transition in and gradually provide depth for the team. All told, there’s a lot to like here.

4. Points of Optimism

Although Indiana isn’t generating massive offseason buzz, there are some legitimate reasons to be excited about this group heading into this season. Not only does Indiana have more than enough talent to compete in the Big Ten, but this should be one of the more balanced rosters the Hoosiers have fielded in years. Indiana also has a handful of potential breakout players, which isn’t something to overlook.

The biggest thing to be optimistic about with regard to this group of Hoosiers is the talent on the roster. Now, I realize that the Hoosiers may have less talent than last year and that talent alone doesn’t win games. However, it’s important to reiterate that this is a talented team. Indiana is second in the Big Ten in Verbal Commits’ average star rating, sitting just behind Michigan State and ahead of teams like Maryland, Ohio State, and Purdue. We all know Indiana has struggled with talent before, but that’s a pretty notable statistic.

And while Indiana doesn’t have a returning star player, that talent is pretty balanced as well. The Hoosiers have experienced players like Brunk and De’Ron Davis, prospects like Jackson-Davis, and sleepers like Rob Phinisee and Jerome Hunter. Unlike in recent years, Indiana doesn’t appear to have a massive void at one or two spots in its lineup anymore. There’s a respectable player at every position. And considering the talent on the roster, we could really see things develop and the lineup fill out during the course of this season.

But perhaps the most exciting thing about this roster is the number of potential breakout players next season. At this point, we probably know what players like Devonte Green and Davis will bring to the lineup. They’re both entering their senior seasons and have played a ton of minutes. We’ve all heard the adage about old dogs with new tricks. We know who those players are at this point.

However, there are a handful of players that arrived on campus with potential that are still unknowns. Players like Hunter, Jackson-Davis, and Phinisee fall squarely in this category. Hunter was arguably the second-best player in Indiana’s 2018 class and didn’t play due to injury last season, Jackson-Davis is a true freshman with sky-high potential, and Phinisee played really well until he got injured and hit the freshman wall. Most teams have one, or maybe two potential breakout players. Indiana has all three of the above along with Franklin and a transfer in Brunk. If even a few of those guys hit, this could be quite a year for Indiana.

We all know Indiana’s not coming off a great season and that means we need to include a lot of “ifs” and “shoulds” in this section, but the Hoosiers are capable of making some noise. The team is as talented as anyone not named Michigan State and has the balance to make it through Big Ten play if a few players can hit the ground running.

5. Points of Concern

While there are some legitimate things to be excited about for the Hoosiers heading into this season, there are also some significant concerns as well. Namely, does Indiana have anyone on its roster that can elevate to star status in the Big Ten and whether the frontcourt can replace some key departures.

This is something I say routinely with regard to these previews, but I will repeat it here. Whether fans want to admit it or not, college basketball is a star-driven sport. That probably sounds obvious (and in some ways, it is), but many fans can lose sight of that. The teams that win Big Ten championships are loaded with All-Big Ten talent and the same can generally be said for units that make noise in the NCAA Tournament. It’s exceedingly rare for a team to be relevant nationally and without a legitimate star player.

Unfortunately, finding a star player could be an issue for the Hoosiers this season. Players like Devonte Green and Rob Phinisee have made noise before and newcomers like Trayce Jackson-Davis could be special, but there’s no clear-cut All-Big Ten player on this roster. No reasonable person would look at this roster and the rest of the Big Ten and think the Hoosiers have a top five, or even a top 10 player at this juncture. Teams have won without that in the past, but it’s not exactly routine. If you’re banking on that, you’re probably in some serious trouble.

And that will be the challenge for Indiana this season. The Hoosiers are going to need to find someone who can step up and carry the team in tight games, on the road, and against quality competition. Phinisee and Jackson-Davis look like the potential breakout players, but we haven’t seen it yet. It’s easily one of the team’s biggest question marks. Having a handful of decent players is nice, but it rarely wins big games. Indiana needs some star contributors.

The frontcourt is another question mark. The Hoosiers have relied on a consistent group upfront for quite some time, but that’s expected to end this year. Unlike in years past, Indiana doesn’t really have any certainties there. Davis has struggled with consistency, Smith has been decent but not special, Jackson-Davis is a true freshman, Brunk wasn’t great at Butler, and the remaining options have done little to prove themselves.

Indiana has more than enough talent to get the job done upfront, but some of the question marks will need to break in the right direction. The obvious potential answer comes from Jackson-Davis, who could be a fantastic player for the Hoosiers. Jerome Hunter is also a potential wildcard at the four spot. He was a marquee recruit before missing last season due to injury.

6. Top Player

Heading into last season, Indiana had a handful of options that could end up as the team’s best player. Langford came in with massive expectations, Morgan was the program’s steadfast option, and players like Phinisee and Smith could be primed for breakouts. Here’s what I wrote:

With Davis and Morgan returning, it’s logical to think that those two will be among the team’s better players. But the elephant in the room is Langford, who arrives with massive expectations. If he can hit the ground running, he will end up being the team’s best player. Morgan was really productive and Davis had some nice moments, but Langford’s potential is off the chart.

Langford seems likely to end up being the team’s best player, but it should be pretty close between him and Morgan. Both should be in the All-Big Ten race. Davis could also be a wildcard, if he takes another step forward.

My prediction was generally pretty spot on here. Langford was great, but ended up missing some serious time due to injury, opening the door for Morgan to end up as the team’s best overall player. Either way though, both were pretty close in that regard.

But with both players out the door, there is no clear pick for this season. Phinisee could be primed to breakout this season in the backcourt, Smith could be a solid upperclassman, Hunter is an absolute wildcard, and Jackson-Davis arrives with massive expectations. My bet is probably on Phinisee, but it’s anyone’s guess.

7. 2019-’20 Schedule Breakdown

  • 10/29 - Gannon University (Ex.)
  • 11/9 - Portland State
  • 11/12 - North Alabama
  • 11/16 - Troy
  • 11/20 - Princeton
  • 11/25 - Louisiana Tech
  • 11/30 - South Dakota State
  • 12/3 - Florida State
  • 12/7 - at Wisconsin
  • 12/10 - UConn (New York, NY)
  • 12/13 - Nebraska
  • 12/21 - Notre Dame (Indianapolis, IN)
  • 12/29- Arkansas
  • 1/4 - at Maryland
  • 1/8 - Northwestern
  • 1/11 - Ohio State
  • 1/15 - at Rutgers
  • 1/18 - at Nebraska
  • 1/23 - Michigan State
  • 1/26 - Maryland
  • 1/29 - at Penn State
  • 2/1 - at Ohio State
  • 2/8 - Purdue
  • 2/13 - Iowa
  • 2/16 - at Michigan
  • 2/19 - at Minnesota
  • 2/23 - Penn State
  • 2/27 - at Purdue
  • 3/1 - at Illinois
  • 3/4 - Minnesota
  • 3/7 - Wisconsin

This schedule may not have the “pop” some Hoosier fans have come to expect in recent years, but this slate could end up being a lot better than it first appears. There are a variety of winnable games and chances for a growing Indiana team to build its resume.

Non-conference play is highlighted by four games. These are the home games against Florida State and Arkansas and the neutral games against UConn and Notre Dame. All four should give the Hoosiers opportunities for quality wins. However, none of those four teams are guarantees to be good. The latter three missed the NCAA Tournament last season and Florida State is replacing some key players. The Seminoles figure to be the toughest opponent on paper, finishing at 14th on KenPom last season.

With the expanded Big Ten slate, most fans know what to expect out of league play at this point. However, there are a few dates to keep an eye on. Perhaps the most interesting stretch will occur in the second half of January and early February. Take a look at this seven-game slate:

  • 1/15 - at Rutgers
  • 1/18 - at Nebraska
  • 1/23 - Michigan State
  • 1/26 - Maryland
  • 1/29 - at Penn State
  • 2/1 - at Ohio State
  • 2/8 - Purdue

I hate saying any stretch will determine a season, but if Indiana is going to outperform expectations, this seems like the place it needs to happen. Three of the seven games come at home against what could be top 25 opponents and three road games come against beatable opponents. The only game that looks like a really tough draw on paper is that trip to Columbus on February 1st. Otherwise, Indiana should enter all of these games with legitimate hopes to come out on top.

The receipt for avoiding last season’s collapse is pretty simple. It starts with taking care of the winnable games. Indiana’s horrible 1-12 stretch during conference play last season included three home losses to teams outside the top 35 on KenPom and and three losses to teams outside the top 45 on the road. Losing to Michigan State or Purdue is one thing, but Indiana has nobody to blame other than itself when it’s losing to teams like Northwestern and Rutgers on the road and Nebraska at home.

So, the games are there for the taking for the Hoosiers. But this slate is tougher than it might look upon initial glance. It will be up to the team to control the winnable games on its schedule and upset a few people along the way.

8. Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG: Robert Phinisee (So.) - 90%
  • SG: Devonte Green (Sr.) - 80%
  • SF: Aljami Durham (Jr.) - 60%
  • PF: Justin Smith (Jr.) - 60%
  • C: De’Ron Davis (Sr.) - 51%

(Percentage likelihood of starting at season tip-off.)

Indiana may not project as a national contender this season, but there are some serious things to like about this lineup. There are some solid starting options and a handful of players that could play at multiple positions. This should give Miller and his staff plenty of options to find the best five this season.

In the backcourt, Indiana has three main options. Phinisee is coming off a really nice freshman campaign and Green and Durham are both upperclassmen with plenty of experience. In a lot of ways, fans know what they’re going to get out of the latter two. And Phinisee has the potential to be the team’s best player this season. If he can keep things rolling, this team could make some serious Big Ten noise.

The main question with these three is what Indiana will do at the three. I’m currently projecting Durham to grab that spot, but it’s far from a guarantee. Players like Hunter and Franklin will also make a run there. Indiana could also go big and slide someone like Smith down to the three. There’s plenty of options here, it’s just going to come down to who can be the most productive at that spot, which is a good thing.

And finally, the frontcourt figures to be a battle between a handful of players. My guess is that Indiana will go small with Smith at the four. However, Davis, Brunk, and Jackson-Davis are all more than capable of locking down the five and at least Jackson-Davis could be a factor at the four. Once again, there are plenty of options. It should be a fun competition to see who can prevail for the starting minutes.

Indiana’s lack of elite star power leaves some uncertainty in this lineup, but the Hoosiers will have plenty of options. And unlike some other teams out there, Indiana has diversity on the roster and a pretty even spread of talent. Every spot has some quality pieces.

9. Team Perspective From Seth Tow

“I see Indiana as a team with a ceiling of an NCAA Tournament berth if many things break right, and the floor could be pretty ugly. It’s a less talented team overall without Romeo Langford and Juwan Morgan. Jerome Hunter is the X-factor. He’s cleared for basketball activity after missing all of last season. If he’s healthy and productive all season, Indiana can be decent.

But IU needs to develop consistency all around to have success this season and improve beyond the 3-point line. I just think there are too many things that need to happen and need to break right for IU to be a tournament team this year. I see Indiana finishing between 8 and 11 in the Big Ten and probably going back to the NIT.” - Seth Tow.

10. Overall Season Outlook

Some might disagree with my “bad luck” thesis about Indiana basketball, but when you really peel back the layers and look at things, it’s really the only logical explanation for how things have gone over the last 20 years. Indiana has recruited well, developed talent, and for varying reason, still can’t get the job done.

The question now is whether that can change this year. And generally speaking, this is an intriguing team. As noted above, it has talent, depth, and experience. That talent is also balanced across the roster. Indiana no longer has a loaded frontcourt with no guards, or quality guards and no big men. Every position seems accounted for. That’s something that shouldn’t be overlooked in college basketball.

My guess is that Indiana will be more consistent this season than it has been in quite some time. The Hoosiers will experience fewer upsets, but won’t be able to take down teams like Michigan State quite as easily this time around. This feels like a team that’s most likely path to success will rest on winning the games the team is supposed to win. Taking care of business at home, beating decent teams on neutral courts, and beating bad teams on the road.

The good news is that might be enough to get this team into the NCAA Tournament. And if so, fans hope Miller can tap into some of the magic he had at Dayton this March.

Big Ten Prediction: 7th Place