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Friday, August 5, 2011
Summer Buzz: Indiana Hoosiers

By Eamonn Brennan

For the next month or so, our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive Insider preview with some analytic fun. Today's subject: the Indiana Hoosiers.

Tom Crean
Indiana coach Tom Crean should enter the season with an improved frontcourt.
Indiana fans, breathe a sigh of relief: The Hoosiers are relevant again.

Don't get too excited. There's still a long way to go before the program is on the nationally elite footing its die-hards so desperately crave. That might come in 2012-13, when what is currently ranked the No. 1 recruiting class in the country arrives in Bloomington, Ind. For now, though, relevance will have to do.

See, it's hard enough for fans of any program to swallow coaching scandals and losing seasons. It happens. But the depths Indiana basketball has experienced in the past few years are almost difficult to describe. In 2008-09, in the wake of the Kelvin Sampson quagmire, IU's depleted roster -- the only returning veteran, Kyle Taber, averaged 11 minutes off the bench in Sampson's final season -- went 6-25, the worst record in school history. In 2009-10, Tom Crean attracted a well-regarded recruiting class, but a season-ending knee injury to Maurice Creek hampered the Hoosiers' development, and their record improved by only four wins.

In 2010-11, Indiana was again expected to make strides, and again the Hoosiers were disappointing. Creek never fully recovered from his injury (and suffered a season-ending stress fracture to the opposite knee in January). IU fans watched as a deeply flawed team would fight and claw its way into games with apparently superior opponents, only to predictably fade down the stretch. The Hoosiers finished the season 12-20.

This is the part in which Indiana fans get annoyed at me for recounting all the misery. I know, I know. I'm sorry. But here's the big transition, Hoosiers fans: Despite that 12-20 record, IU wasn't all that bad.

It's true. In 2009, the Hoosiers finished No. 212 in Ken Pomeroy's final adjusted efficiency rankings. That's about what you'd expect from a six-win team. In 2010, they finished No. 183 -- again, about what you'd expect.

In 2011, the Hoosiers ranked -- wait for it -- No. 75 in the nation in adjusted efficiency at the end of the season. That's one spot behind Oklahoma State and two spots above Baylor. It's 12 spots ahead of Memphis, which finished 25-10 and went to the NCAA tournament. It's 25 spots ahead of Dayton, whose coach, Brian Gregory, was hired to take over for Paul Hewitt at Georgia Tech this spring.

Of course, Pomeroy rankings aren't a magic bullet for how good a team actually is. But the point remains: The Hoosiers were a good team for the majority of their games last season. They were certainly vastly improved, especially on the offensive end. They simply didn't finish. But don't let the wins mark fool you. This team got better, and it's in line to make similar improvements in 2011-12.

The biggest reason Hoosiers fans have to be optimistic is the arrival of forward Cody Zeller, one of the top big men in the Class of 2011. Zeller's commitment was lauded for its symbolic impact; it foreshadowed a new era in Indiana recruiting, one in which the best players in one of the most talent-rich states in the country didn't leave the state to ply their trade. But Zeller's on-court contributions could be crucial as early as this season. The younger brother of North Carolina forward Tyler Zeller (and former Notre Dame forward Luke Zeller), Cody is the first legitimate center type Crean has had during his tenure in Bloomington.

Until now, he's been using some mix of Tom Pritchard, an overmatched but scrappy power forward, and Christian Watford, a 6-foot-8 small forward who is much more comfortable when he's facing the basket. Like a grade school coach, Crean had no choice; those were his tallest players, so they had to play down low. If Zeller is even 50 percent as good as his recruiting rankings say he is, he'll be able to take over most of those responsibilities. Pritchard can play forward without as much pressure to score, and Watford can slide to the 3, where he presents massive matchup problems for smaller defenders.

Watford was one of three IU players who were genuine offensive contributors in 2011. The others were sophomore Jordan Hulls (an undersized, savvy point guard who proved to be a lights-out shooter) and freshman Victor Oladipo (whose athletic, aggressive style often led to surprisingly easy buckets off the dribble). Both players will be joined in the backcourt by Creek, who might finally be healthy this season, as well as a mix of senior Verdell Jones, sharpshooter Matt Roth and freshman small forward Austin Etherington, whose shooting is his best trait and who could compete for minutes right away.

In other words, there are some positive signs here. And I'm not talking about that crazy 2012 recruiting class.

Of course, Indiana had some deep deficiencies in 2011. The Hoosiers were a bad defensive team, and have an acute affliction for fouling opponents (they ranked No. 333 out of 345 teams in opponent foul rate last season). For all those fouls, you'd assume Indiana was creating turnovers, but that wasn't the case. Opponents basically scored at will, and when they didn't, they went to the foul line.

So the Hoosiers aren't suddenly going to start dominating again. That's a ways off. They're still going to be less talented, less athletic and less deep at certain positions than many of their conference foes.

But the fundamentals are largely positive. Don't let last season's win-loss record fool you too much: For the first time in three years, Indiana has a legitimate chance to regain something positive. They have a chance to compete, like any old regular school should compete, in the middle of the conference fray. Perhaps most importantly, their fans have a chance to watch home wins against mediocre Big Ten opponents without acting as if they just won the national title.

That celebration was a flashpoint for IU fans. It was cathartic for some, embarrassing for others. More than anything, though, it showcased to a national audience just how eager Indiana's fans were for something that felt like positive momentum. It was, in some ways, a hunger to be normal again.

So if Indiana is merely mediocre in 2011 -- not a post-scandal sad case, not a reborn elite, but just normal, like everyone else -- well, I bet most Hoosiers fans will take it. It's already been a long road back.