In the buildup to Midnight Madness, ESPN Insider and our college hoops team are collaborating on a preview of one high-profile college hoops team per day -- based on Joe Lunardi’s top 20 teams in his offseason Bracketology. We're calling it "Countdown To Madness." I'll be tracing three key things you should know about each team we preview. We're calling that Three Big Things. (Hey, that's snappy!) Today: Indiana.
1. In the past, oh, six months, many barrels of digital ink have been spilled about the Indiana Hoosiers' remarkable turnaround. After win totals of six, 10 and 12 in his first three seasons, coach Tom Crean’s team got much better all at once. The Hoosiers truly announced their return with last December’s last-second win over Kentucky. By the time Crean’s offense went toe-to-toe with eventual national champion Kentucky in the Sweet 16, it was old news.
As far as I could tell, that loss wasn’t remotely disappointing for Indiana fans. Instead, it was encouraging -- a sign of the insane difference one season can make and a harbinger of much bigger things to come.
Entering the 2012–13 season, the Hoosiers will be ranked among the top three teams in the country. (For what it’s worth, I think either Indiana or Louisville should be ranked No. 1, and it’s sort of splitting hairs to argue. I also remain very skeptical of UCLA). Surefire Preseason All-American forward Cody Zeller is back with a full summer of offseason workouts and rather funny tweets under his belt. Alongside Zeller is essentially every player of note from last season's team. Joining him is the No. 11-ranked recruiting class in the country, including No. 3-ranked guard Yogi Ferrell.
There might be a team or two out there with a higher concentration of pure talent in their starting lineups. There might be teams with more future pros or more athleticism on the front line. But no team will be as deep as this one.
When you combine that depth with the towering force that is Zeller, well, no wonder Indiana fans are thinking national title.
2. The only problem? There are only 40 minutes in a college basketball game. And if it’s possible to have too many bodies on a college basketball team -- I'm torn -- Indiana does.
And many of them can, and probably will, play. Besides Zeller, forward Christian Watford, point guard Jordan Hulls and wingmen Victor Oladipo and Will Sheehey all commanded significant minutes last season. Forward Derek Elston came off the bench and occasionally scored in bunches, and guard Remy Abell looked promising in limited action. Then there’s guard Maurice Creek, a promising player from two years ago who is seeking to return after 24 months ruined by one injury after the other. Had Creek never been injured, he would probably be considered among this team’s major stars. At the very least, he deserves a chance to redeem his career.
But where will Crean find the minutes? Even if the above players were the only Hoosiers to speak of, Creek would face stiff backcourt competition from Hulls (a lights-out shooter), Oladipo (the team’s best defender), Sheehey (a versatile and sneakily athletic swingman) and even Watford (who at this point is really more of a small forward than a power forward).
And then there are the freshmen. Ferrell, a McDonald’s All-American and the No. 3-ranked point guard in the class of 2012, appears set to start. As Crean said in early September: “I probably wouldn’t put it in the Sharpie pen just yet, but I might use a fountain pen that we’re probably going to start a freshman." This creates a somewhat fascinating conundrum. Crean has also hinted he’ll seek to keep Hulls in the starting lineup -- when you shoot 49.3 percent from the 3-point line, you have to play -- but will have to figure out how to do so without losing Oladipo’s defensive energy (Hulls’ lack of size makes him a major defensive liability). But then what of Abell? What of Creek, of Austin Etherington, of freshman small forward Jeremy Hollowell, a four-star prospect out of Indianapolis? Let’s not forget Sheehey or Watford, players who’ll get big minutes. Let’s also throw in big and athletic freshmen forward Hanner Mosquera-Perea -- and let’s not forget Elston -- and Indiana’s rotation could theoretically go 11, maybe 12 deep.
This is not how most college hoops teams usually work. Usually, coaches don’t like to go much deeper than seven or eight rotation players, and often fewer once February and March roll around. But Crean might be better off deciding to play to his strengths. Maybe he already has: At the same student function where Crean made the Sharpie comment, he said Ferrell will be a big part of the team’s desire “to run a lot more this year.”
If that’s the case, we could see a lot more of the Hoosiers we saw score 90 points in 72 possessions against Kentucky in March -- a team that turns its depth into waves upon waves of bodies. This could be a fascinating thing to watch.
3. Of course, Indiana didn’t win that Sweet 16 game against Kentucky. It lost, because even though it scored 1.25 points per possession, Kentucky scored 1.41. This was partly a function of just how good Kentucky was -- 102 points in a 40-minute, neutral-court, Sweet 16 game is crazy any way you slice it -- but also a function of where Indiana’s defense was at the end of the season.
Which is to say, it was all right. Certainly not as bad as it had been in 2008 or 2009 or 2010, but still not an elite unit. The Hoosiers finished No. 4 in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency, per KenPom, but they ended the season ranked No. 64 on defense. Again, that is not bad. But it is not the kind of defense that typically gets a team through the rigors of the NCAA tournament, when shooting can go cold and nerves can take over and games can grind to a stop.
For all the progress Indiana made on defense last season, it still has a ways to go. This is where those waves of bodies -- particularly the athletic freshmen, who should cover up some of the holes on the perimeter and at the power forward position -- should come in handy. Maybe the Hoosiers will be able to play so fast they’ll run inferior teams off the court. But for a team with designs on a national title, the defense has to be there when it counts.
And so those are the big questions about this team: How Crean manages the minutes, and whether the Hoosiers defend well enough to justify their national title aspirations.
Because make no mistake, this season is nothing like 2011-12. Indiana has a bona fide star in Zeller and a mess of talented players around him. No one will miss the Hoosiers in the rear view; they’re not sneaking up on anybody.
This year isn’t about happy surprises or quantum leaps. This year is about setting high expectations and delivering on them. That’s what Indiana basketball used to be. Crean has a chance to make it so once more.