by Kent Sterling
Since Tom Crean’s first season in Bloomington, it’s been easy to express optimism about the Hoosiers. “It’s going to be better this year,” has been the mantra. Those day’s are apparently over.
Indiana doesn’t shoot it well (making only 31.5% from behind the arc), and averages only 12 assists on 27.2 field goals per game, and that was against nine cupcakes among their 13 opponents.
The Hoosiers are not going to be as good this year as they were in 2012-2013. That’s just the way it is, but it doesn’t mean that IU can’t see progress throughout the season to achieve their goals – whatever they are – but losing the #2 and #4 picks in the NBA Draft has a cost.
Cody Zeller, Victor Oladipo, Jordan Hulls, Christian Watford, Derek Elston, and Remy Abell are gone, and have been replaced by players who have not shown an ability to score consistently. Fans celebrating mass at St. Paul’s on 17th Street have been encouraged to pray for Yogi Ferrell’s health along with Pope Benedict, Archbishop Tobin, and the infirmed.
I like the way Crean has used a lot of guys in a wide rotation. That will pay dividends late in the season when legs tend to wear down. Indiana will be fresh while other teams are tired. None of the freshmen have played more than 22.2 minutes per game.
The real season starts today as the Hoosiers travel to the home of another unknown quality – the Fighting Illini of the University of Illinois. The Hoosiers and Illini are ranked #49 and #50 on kenpom.com, and trying to pick a winner today is no easier than trying to pick Indiana’s games that don’t include Wisconsin (whom they seem to never be able to beat) or Northwestern (who seem to be very beatable).
More interesting even than this season will be the response by fans to Crean’s first down season. It’s been a tough haul as the Indiana program has been rebuilt, but the really hard work may start when fans begin to wonder if the back-to-back Sweet Sixteen results in the NCAA Tournament might be as good as it gets in Bloomington.
If past is prologue, the Hoosiers are going to have problems against a Big Ten schedule. The Hoosiers are 9-0 against schools outside the major conferences, and 1-3 against BCS schools – winning against Washington, with losses to UConn, Notre Dame, and Syracuse.
Right now, there are six Big Ten teams ranked on kenpom.com ahead of Indiana, and five of those are in the top 20. The Big Ten is rugged in ways Kennesaw State, Chicago State, and Nicholls State never will be, and the Hoosiers will be tested right out of the gate at Illinois today, and then Saturday in Assembly Hall against Tom Izzo and Michigan State.
After that, it’s off to Happy Valley to play Penn State in a must-win game before another hosting the fourth-ranked Wisconsin Badgers of Bo Ryan.
So how will the Hoosiers find a way to the NCAA Tourney while playing in a conference that supposedly boasts five of the best 20 teams in college basketball (IU plays Wisconsin 2x, Michigan 2x, Michigan State 2x, and Iowa and Ohio State once each).
The Hoosiers are very young, and the light might go on for the kids, or they might continue to drift without any real solid notion of how to fill their roles. If they come together, they could beat Penn State, Northwestern, and Nebraska twice each. They play Purdue once, and can win there although it’s far from assured. They could split against Illinois. There are eight wins right there.
That’s a total of 18 wins, including their preseason schedule. Grab two in the Big Ten Tournament, and that’s a path to the 20 wins needed to ride the bubble to a spot in March Madness.
This is the most interesting Big Ten season Indiana has played in decades because imagining them playing well enough to win 12 Big Ten games isn’t impossible, but it’s also simple to see them losing 12.
And Hoosiers fans aren’t likely to lose their collective minds regardless. Every coach has a tough season now and then. Roy Williams took UNC to the NIT in 2010, and John Calipari did it last year, losing a first round NIT game to Robert Morris. There is a difference in that both of those coaches have led their teams to National Championships, but Crean is well enough ensconced at IU to be able to survive a tough year.
What happens over the next two months will determine just how important 2014-2015 will be. That’s the life of a basketball coach at Indiana.