The biggest question for Indiana this season: Can the Hoosiers get back to contending for a Big Ten title?
The Tom Crean Era started with lows, three straight disappointing finishes of 11th, ninth and again 11th place in the conference. Then came the high, a Big Ten championship in 2013, a 29-win season and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
But that high-water mark seems so long ago. It’s only been two seasons. But eighth- and seventh-place finishes in the Big Ten — one of those seasons ending without an NCAA tournament appearance — have been continually plagued by off-court incidents. Combined, the lack of on-court success and the prevalence of off-court issues have people calling for Crean’s job.
But winning cures all ills, doesn’t it? And it seems like Crean could be set up for another successful season in Bloomington.
The team’s best players all opted to return to school. Yogi Ferrell is back for his senior season. Troy Williams is back for his junior season. James Blackmon Jr. is back for his sophomore season. Throw in the addition of big-name freshman Thomas Bryant, and the Hoosiers look to have what it takes to again compete for a league championship.
“It all comes down to consistency,” Crean said at Big Ten media day earlier this month. “The consistency has got to come through injuries, and it's got to come through some losses, especially in this league. And it's being able to rebound quickly, figuratively, in the sense of being able to withstand all the different challenges that come inside. But, to me, the big characteristics are going to be the mental toughness you've just got to be able to play with. And you've got to be able to control the paint, which means you've got to get layups and you've got to get to the free throw line. At the same time you've got to be able to challenge the rim and keep on the teams from having a real high field goal percentage inside that paint area.
“If you look at the history of this league, especially the last few years, it's high shooting percentages. It's low turnovers. It's very good defensive fields goal percentages. And the top teams are always right there at the rebound percentage or rebound margin areas. Those are the things. Those are the toughest things to deal with and the consistent things that have to be done. I think that's what it is.”
[MORE BIG TEN: Hoops preview: Hill, Nunn need to keep stepping up for Illini]
That’s quite the to-do list.
What the Hoosiers need to keep doing is scoring like they scored last season. Indiana was the highest-scoring team in the Big Ten, averaging 77.4 points per game, and was particularly deadly from 3-point range, leading the conference in 3-point percentage (40.6 percent) and 3-pointers made (319). The Hoosiers ranked in the top 10 in the country in both of those 3-point categories.
But defensively it was a different story, and that’s what needs to change for Indiana to get back in the mix for a conference title. The Hoosiers were dead last in the conference in scoring defense, allowing an average of 71.7 points per game, and dead last in opponents field-goal percentage, allowing opponents to shoot 45.3 percent from the floor.
The Hoosiers know they can score with anybody. But can they stop anybody?
“We have athleticism, we have playmakers, we have shooters, toughness. We really think we have all the tools we need. We play a unique style, as well, a fun style that we succeed at and we know is tough to guard. And we’re definitely going to bring a defensive factor to our game that we really didn’t have last year,” senior guard Nick Zeisloft said. “We struggled on that end, and we definitely look to improve immensely in that category this year. Championship teams play great defense, so we know that’s a big key for us.”
“I think at moments, we’ve seen how well this team can play, but I feel like we’ve got a little bit of a ways to go. We’ve got to get more connected defensively,” Ferrell said. “Offensively, it’s always going to be there, but I think we’ve got to get more connected defensively, have those conversations for our team.”
[MORE BIG TEN: Purdue still waiting for Caleb Swanigan to be cleared by NCAA]
Last season ended with a quick NCAA tournament exit, a loss to Wichita State in the Round of 64. That obviously wasn’t how the Hoosiers — who just barely made it onto the right side of the bubble — wanted things to end. But with most everybody back from that team, there are lessons to be carried over from that season-ending loss.
“We had a bitter taste in our mouth,” Ferrell said. “I felt like during that game, we didn’t come out in the second half with the same level we had in the first half. And I felt like that was the main problem for our team last year was not keeping that same energy, same effort for the entire game. So that’s the main thing we try and tell these guys, ‘Leave it all out on the court because you don’t want to give those eternal hugs at the end of the day.’”
Ferrell drives the bus for this team. He’s a two-time All-Big Ten selection and last season saw his name scattered all over the conference leaderboards. He was sixth in the league in scoring, fourth in assists, fourth in 3-pointers made and sixth in minutes played. He does it all for the Hoosiers from the point guard position, and he’s got the leadership ability to go along with it.
“He means everything for us,” Zeisloft said. “It’s definitely different when he’s not on the court with us. He’s a huge part of our success, and we’ve all learned to play with him and us making plays for him, not just him always making plays for us. We need to help him out, make things easier on him, as well, because teams really zero in on him because of his leadership and his talent.”
But joining the experienced Ferrell in making the difference for the Hoosiers this season will also be an inexperienced but much-hyped recruit in Bryant. Ranked as one of the top 30 players in the Class of 2015, the 6-foot-10 West Virginia native earned rave reviews at media day despite the fact that he hadn’t seen the court much yet, limited in practice due to an injury suffered on the team's first day of practice.
“Thomas Bryant is a different player,” Crean said. “He's got a tremendous athleticism. … The greatest compliment I can give him is: He practiced the first day. We went twice the first day. We held him up second day on, and we missed him every day. We could tell he wasn't out there. Not just because of the way what he scores in rebounds but because his energy is so infectious. The players have a high level of confidence in him. He's got a tremendous work ethic. And he knew he had to get better. And that energy that he brings his teammates is at another place. I think that's where he'll impact our team in a great way. Hopefully, in a great way as soon as we get him healthy.”
[SHOP BIG TEN: Get your Hoosiers gear right here]
On paper, there’s plenty of reason to be excited about Indiana’s prospects for 2015-16. But the Big Ten is as challenging a conference as you’ll find in college basketball, and even the good teams finish in the middle of the pack. There’s work to be done if Indiana is going to be up there among the contenders come March. But they’ve got the pieces to make it happen.
“We feel like we want to go out there and win a Big Ten conference title, and that starts day in and day out with practice and it even starts with our exhibition game that we’ve got coming up in early November,” Ferrell said. “Once we have those goals in mind, we just do what we can do each day and try and do what we do to achieve those goals.
“Everybody can have their opinion about us, what we’re going to be. But at the end of the day, the win-loss column is going to tell whether the expectations were right about us or wrong. We’re not really trying to listen to all that. We know what we need to do, and what we need to do is go out and play for our team.”