Indiana hoping to match hype of being No. 1

Indiana hoping to match hype of being No. 1

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) Jordan Hulls walks into Assembly Hall wearing a T-shirt that reads ``How Sweet It Is,'' a phrase intended to celebrate Indiana's return to the NCAA tournament regional semifinals last spring.

This fall, those words have a whole new meaning.

After spending three years in the abyss and another year trying to prove themselves, the Hoosiers are ranked No. 1 and squarely in the discussion about the national championship.

Indiana is back. Finally.

``It could be a really special year and everybody is anxious to start seeing what this team is capable of,'' junior guard Victor Oladipo said with his usual exuberance. ``It's the stuff you dream about, trying to chase this one goal that everyone is trying to chase.''

Outsiders certainly believe Indiana has the combination to do that this season.

For the first time since 1979-80, and only the third time in school history, the Hoosiers open this season ranked No. 1. Sophomore center Cody Zeller is the early favorite to be the Big Ten player of the year, and the campaigning to make him this year's national player of the year is in full swing, too. Indiana basketball tickets are again one of the hottest items in the state.

Don't believe it?

Eager fans are so excited about this season they filled every seat inside Assembly Hall for an open practice Oct. 20 two hours before it began. Coach Tom Crean apologized to those who were turned away.

``It makes you appreciate winning that much more,'' said Hulls, a senior guard and one of the team leaders. ``But it is kind of crazy to think about how far we've come.''

Crean was hired in April 2008 to clean things up after an embarrassing NCAA phone-call scandal tainted the school's pristine image and gutted the roster. He promised to restore the program's image, its national prestige and to win championships with a team that would make everyone proud.

Nobody expected the long road back to be easy, least of all Crean, who had only two returning players, both walk-ons, in that first season.

Crean remembers it well. Indiana crashed to 6-25, losing to the likes of Lipscomb and barely avoided losing to Division II school Chaminade in the seventh-place game at the Maui Invitational. It was ugly.

``We had no leadership that year,'' Crean said. ``You look around pro and college sports, you take the leader out of a business and the business will be affected. Now you take the leadership out of a program, and the players don't have anyone to look up to, nobody who's been through that. We had to grow into that. We could have signed junior college kids, but it wouldn't have made any difference because they hadn't been through Indiana and neither had we.''

While Hulls was busy winning the state's 2009 Mr. Basketball Award, he watched disbelievingly as his hometown school tumbled.

When Crean offered him a chance to be part of the solution, Hulls couldn't pass it up.

Crean gave the same sales pitch same everywhere he went: Come to Indiana and you'll get playing time right away, maybe start, become part of something bigger than themselves, earn a degree from a highly-respected institution and forever be known in Hoosiers lore as part of the group that rebuilt Indiana basketball.

``I remember the dark days, and now I see the guys being picked high. The program is back,'' said shooting guard Maurice Creek, who came to Indiana to help restore the basketball program before three season-ending injuries derailed his career. ``We have more pieces than when I first got here.''

The struggles continued through Crean's next two seasons as Indiana went 10-21 and 12-20. Doubters began to wonder how long all this would take.

The Hoosiers answered that challenge with a magical 2011-12. Indiana won 15 more games, finishing 27-9 and making their first NCAA tourney under Crean. But it wasn't just the Hoosiers record that got national attention.

On Dec. 10, Christian Watford hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to beat No. 1 Kentucky 73-72. Three weeks later, the Hoosiers upset then No. 2 Ohio State 74-70. In February, as No. 5 Michigan State closed in on a Big Ten title, the Hoosiers did it again, soundly beating the Spartans 70-55.

It marked the first time in school history that Indiana had beaten three top-five teams in the same season, and the first time in Crean's tenure that the Hoosiers became a ranked team. The only real glitch came in the March rematch with Kentucky, won by the eventual national champs 102-90 - a loss the Hoosiers are now using as motivation.

``It probably always lingers because you never want to lose a game,'' Hulls said. ``You hate the feeling of a loss, and we don't want to get back to that point and lose again.''

Zeller, who averaged 15.6 points and 6.6 rebounds last season, has grown about one-half inch to an even 7-feet, has added 10 to 15 pounds of muscle and feels stronger and better than he did a year ago. He is also ready to start shooting 3-pointers.

``I worked on it a lot this summer,'' he said after Hoosier Hysteria. ``I shot 3s in high school, but I know I'll have to shoot some from outside this year.''

Watford (12.6 points), Hulls (11.7 points) and Oladipo (10.8) also are back.

What else does Indiana have? Depth and one of the nation's top freshmen classes.

Backup Will Sheehey (8.6) and sophomores Remy Abell and Austin Etherington could all have expanded roles this year. New point guard Yogi Ferrell and two 6-foot-8 forwards, Hanner Mosquera-Perea and Jeremy Hollowell, all freshmen, could both see significant playing time, too, especially with forward Derek Elston expected to miss six to eight weeks with a torn meniscus.

But Crean has another advantage other national contenders don't. His team has enough players still around from those losing seasons to remind players to ignore the chatter and just work toward getting their sweetest finish of all - a sixth national championship banner.

``I'm not even going to try to downplay that it's not a big deal. It's not a `hey, we told you so.' It's none of that. We lived it. And I think it's a great testament to everybody that's been a part of that program with sticking with it and moving onward and upward,'' Crean said. ``It's an incredible program. It's an incredible school. We need people that are going to come in and leave it in a better place than they found it. That's exactly what our players are trying to do.''

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Capitals Mailbag Part 1: Looking ahead to a busy offseason

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Capitals Mailbag Part 1: Looking ahead to a busy offseason

It’s time for a new Capitals mailbag! Check out Part 1 below.

Have a Caps question you want to be answered the next mailbag? Send it on Twitter using #CapsMailNBC or by email to

Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.

I have written about this before, but Jakub Vrana’s contract has to be priority No. 1. Vrana is absolutely going to be back, but he is going to take a sizable chunk of what little cap room Washington has remaining. General manager Brian MacLellan needs to know how much cap space he is working with this offseason before he can make any decisions about the other free agents like Brett Connolly and Carl Hagelin.

The second most important move would be a trade to free up cap space. Everyone assumes that Matt Niskanen would be the player on the trade block, as you noted. With the free agents the Caps could potentially lose and a prospect pipeline devoid of any high-end offensive skill, I just do not see how the Caps can add enough quality forward depth this offseason without clearing cap space.

Fans should circle June 20-22 as target dates for a possible trade. June 20 is the NHL general managers meeting and June 21-22 is the draft. When you get all the general managers together in the same place, that can spark trade deals. Don’t forget, the draft was when Brooks Orpik and Philipp Grubauer were traded to the Colorado Avalanche last year.

As for Backstrom and Holtby, while I am sure MacLellan would like to get those deals done if possible, these do not rank as high on the priority list as both players are still under contract for another season.

Maclellan was asked on breakdown day if he wanted those deals done this summer and he said, “I don’t think it matters. We’ll have conversations and if it feels like it’s going in the right direction, then we can get more assertive on it.”

The Caps have plenty of issues to deal with for this season to worry too much about Backstrom and Holtby right now.

Jacob C. writes: How does Washington adjust their offseason knowing that they have a $1.15 million dollar cap penalty? 

Washington was hit with a cap penalty because of some late performance bonuses that pulled the team over the cap ceiling.

The money situation was going to be tight for the team regardless of the cap penalty so it is hard to know if anything the team does will be directly related to that, but if I had to guess I believe the player the most affected by this will be Andre Burakovsky.

As a restricted free agent, the Caps will have to give him a qualifying offer of $3.25 million in order to retain his rights and prevent him from becoming an unrestricted free agent. That is high for a player who has scored 12 goals in each of the past three seasons.

Maybe you could justify the risk of overpaying him because the team could potentially see both Connolly and Hagelin walk, but with $1.15 million less to spend that may force MacLellan to not qualify Burakovsky and attempt to convince him to sign for less.

Jack Hughes.

OK, so obviously that is not going to happen. I assume your question is more aimed at who I think the Caps would want of the players who may actually fall to them at 25. The team’s philosophy when it comes to the draft is to take the best available player, which it should be, but the Caps have not taken a forward in the first round since 2014 and that lack of offensive talent is really starting to catch up with them. If forwards start dropping off the board, they cannot afford to wait and see who falls to them. My prediction is that that team is going to come into this draft with the goal of drafting a forward. They will have grades on every first round prospect and, if it looks like a number of forwards could fall their way, great. If a bunch of forwards get taken early, however, I would not at all be surprised if MacLellan tries to trade up to make sure he gets a high-end forward prospect.

Next, let’s look at where the Caps like to get their players from. In the last five drafts, Washington has taken nine players from the WHL and 11 players from European leagues. Knowing that, here are the players I would predict to be high on the Caps’ list:

Kirby Dach C, Saskatoon, WHL
Dylan Cozens C, Lethbridge, WHL
Peyton Krebs C, Kootenay, WHL
Ilya Nikolaev C, Russia
Nils Hoglander W, Sweden

The three WHL players I have seen go pretty high in most mock drafts so if you get down to say, pick 15 and one of those guys is still on the board, that’s when it is time to really pay attention and see if MacLellan tries to jump up to snag him.

It depends on what you consider to be “major.” As I mentioned above, if the Caps want to compete for the Cup next season, I do not see how they can avoid making a trade. If trading Niskanen for what would likely be draft picks would be considered “major,” then yes.

Do I see them making a big multi-player trade for significant pieces? No. Do I see them pursuing a big-name free agent like Erik Karlsson or Artemi Panarin? No. Even if MacLellan does trade Niskanen that only frees up another $5.75 million in cap room and the Caps will need just about every penny to fill in their bottom six.

We could see a Niskanen trade, we could see a them trade up in the draft and the team will almost certainly be active on July 1 to find forward depth, but they are not in the running for any of the big name free agents.

Todd Reirden said on breakdown day, “We're going to go through a full review of all that stuff, but I do not anticipate any changes to my coaching staff."

Obviously, he left himself a little bit of wiggle room there, but it does not appear the team is going to make any changes to the staff.

In terms of how they operate, I anticipate Reirden taking a more hands-on approach to the defense. He really made a name for himself in the league for his defensive acumen and the improvement he brought with him as an assistant coach was not as evident last season with him as head coach.

I do not anticipate any major changes to the system the team plays, but I am curious what they do on special teams. I have not seen a team that consistently utilizes the slingshot well on the power play so I am hopeful the breakouts get an update to get rid of the slingshot. I do not know how you could evaluate the team’s play from last season and say, yeah, let’s keep doing that. But, the sling shot was all the rage across the NHL so clearly someone thinks it actually works.

Second, the penalty kill has to adjust for the personnel it has. The Caps tried a more aggressive penalty kill and it did not work for much of the season. Really, it did not seem to click until Hagelin came on board at the trade deadline. If he stays or Washington gets someone on the roster who can run it as effectively as he could, great. Otherwise, you hope the team can accept the fact that a guy like Chandler Stephenson just is not the same player as Hagelin and adjust accordingly. 

First, the defense as that seems like the easier prediction. I see a second pairing of Dmitry Orlov and Nick Jensen. I expected that to be the plan the moment the team re-signed Jensen. The bottom pair will be Jonas Siegenthaler and Christian Djoos. The Caps need to add too much on offense to commit the money to another defenseman. Siegenthaler looked good in the playoffs and Djoos will be entering his third year in the NHL so it is time for both players to step up. I think we could see someone like Tyler Lewington come in as a cheap No. 7 and as someone the team feels no pressure to get into the lineup.

The offense is trickier as this is where the team may add some free agents. Lars Eller and Nic Dowd will be the centers. That much we know. Travis Boyd remains under contract. I predict MacLellan will be able to work something out with Burakovsky and he stays. A return for Stephenson also seems likely. At that point, the Caps should have about $7.5 million of cap space for two more forwards. I think they could make a run at either Connolly or Hagelin, but not both. It just depends on where their priorities lie heading into free agency. If they cannot get any, they have to turn to free agency and hope they can find a top-nine player they can plug into the third line.

Now here’s where things get interesting. You have the money for one high-end bottom six guy (Connolly, Hagelin or their replacement), but a Stephenson, Dowd, Boyd line does not inspire much confidence. Looking at the prospects, the only prospect who seems close to the NHL is Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, but it is hard to tell given he only played 16 games in Hershey last season.

If the Caps think he is ready, they could look to Jonsson-Fjallby as a Hagelin replacement. If not, could they actually consider bringing back Dmitrij Jaskin? After all, Jaskin will be an RFA and the team could probably get him for pretty cheap. If they do that, Reirden would have to actually use him, but the cap situation makes this not outside the realm of possibility.

So here is what I would say for the third and fourth lines:

Free agent – Lars Eller – Andre Burakovsky
Chandler Stephenson – Nic Dowd – Dmitrij Jaskin
Travis Boyd

Thanks for all your questions! If you have a question you want to be read and answered in the next mailbag, send it to or use #CapsMailNBC on Twitter.



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Baltimore Ravens Roundup: Ravens rank higher than expected in preseason rankings

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Baltimore Ravens Roundup: Ravens rank higher than expected in preseason rankings

Kick off your Wednesday with the latest Baltimore Ravens news including a high preseason ranking for the Ravens.

Player/Team Notes: 

1. The Ravens ranked higher than expected in Peter King's preseason rankings. King ranked the Ravens at No. 12, surprising for a defense that is working on development during this offseason. However, with the Ravens' signing of All-Pro safety Earl Thomas, maybe he will bring the fire the Ravens need on defense.

2. With day 2 of OTAs in the books, the focus has been on quarterback Lamar Jackson. Ravens writer, Kevin Eck noted that during the offseason, Jackson had been working out with Ravens quarterbacks coach, Joshua Harris along with receivers Jordan Lasley and Jaylen Smith, so it remains to be seen throughout the summer on whether or not he has improved namely his passing game. 

Looking Ahead:

July 15: 4 p.m. deadline to get a long-term deal done with designated franchise tag players.

The 2019 NFL schedule is set! See the Baltimore Ravens defend the AFC North at M&T Bank Stadium this season. Get your tickets now at

Credit: Baltimore Ravens for news points.