The Indiana Hoosiers are about to party like it's 1987.
After Kelvin Sampson got done with the program, this historically-good program was in historically-bad shape.
It won six games in Tom Crean's first season in 2009. But then that number went up to 10. Then 12. Then, last year, hope.
The Hoosiers won 27 games, including the Game of the Year over Kentucky, which ended with a Christian Watford Shot of the Year. They ended the regular season ranked No. 16. They made it to the Sweet 16 before the Wildcats got revenge. They were back and everyone knew it.
Now, Watford's back. National Player of the Year candidate Cody Zeller is back. Senior point guard Jordan Hulls is back. Uber-athletic Victor Oladipo is back. The typical do-whatever-is-needed glue guy, Will Sheehey, is back. A top recruiting class that includes elite point guard Yogi Farrell is here.
The Hoosiers have it all, and the voters agree—Indiana is No. 1 to start the season.
Let's take a look at what's in store for the team with the highest expectations in the country.
PG Yogi Ferrell (Freshman)
SF Jeremy Hollowell (Freshman)
C Peter Jurkin (Freshman)
PF Hanner Mosquera-Perea (Freshman)
Not only does he instantly enter the national debate regarding the best name in college basketball, but point guard Yogi Ferrell will immediately make a significant impact for Tom Crean's squad.
Hey, Boo Boo.
The dynamic point guard might be a little undersized (I'm not fully convinced he's 6'0" in anything but elevator shoes), but the McDonald's All-American has a lightning-quick first step and can take any defender off the dribble. His ability to drive-and-kick is going to make him a dangerous option with Indiana's dead-eye shooters surrounding him on offense.
Speaking of dead-eye shooters, we have Jeremy Hollowell. The 42nd-ranked freshman struggles with inconsistency and focus at times, but in an offense where he'll be one of the last options on the court, he could make teams pay with with his shooting. Throw in his size (6'7", 190 pounds), ability to handle the ball and active hands on defense, and you have a future NBA prospect if everything goes right.
The Indianapolis native should have no trouble finding a small role off the bench.
Finally, there's Peter Jurkin and Hanner Perea. The big men will give the Hoosiers some solid frontcourt depth behind the stars, but they'll have to sit out the first nine games of the season. The insane length and athleticism will have to wait.
G Verdell Jones (Graduation): 7.5 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 3.2 apg, 0.7 spg, 24.5 mpg
G Matt Roth (Graduation): 4.3 ppg, .545 3P%, 11.8 mpg
F Tom Pritchard (Graduation): 1.3 ppg, 1.6 rpg, 9.9 mpg
There's a reason Indiana is supposed to be so good this season. It's roster, for the most part, will remain the same as last year.
The loss of Verdell Jones, a sharpshooter and lockdown defender, will hurt a little bit, but he's not someone the Hoosiers won't be able to replace. They fared well enough without him during last year's NCAA tournament to quell any worries about his departure.
The only real question mark here is which two of Jordan Hulls, Will Sheehey and Yogi Ferrell will find the starting lineup and who will come off the bench as one of the top sixth men in the country.
For now, we'll stick the true freshman on the bench. His instant offense and ability to collapse defenses will serve as a real weapon off the pine.
However, don't be surprised if Crean plays around with his lineup a little bit.
Will Sheehey is the tough-as-nails-do-everything forward, and his energy and versatility very well may be better served off the bench. That would let Hulls, one of the best shooters in the country, play off the ball and spot up where he would undoubtedly be a thorn in defenses' sides.
Moreover, if Indiana is facing a big or athletic backcourt, like, say Michigan's combo of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., sticking Hulls—who often struggles on the defensive end—on the bench to start might be a better idea.
After Indiana's sizzling six, or whatever they want to be called, there is plenty of depth, but also plenty of question marks.
Hanner Perea and Peter Jurkin will miss the first nine games. Freshman Jeremy Hollowell is talented, but he doesn't always bring that intensity and fire. That could be troubling at the collegiate level. Remy Abell, Austin Etherington and Derek Elston all struggled to make a constant impact last season. Maurice Creek can be a lethal shooter and scorer (16.4 ppg his freshman year), but he's been unable to stay healthy and could suffer from rust.
It's a good thing that, considering his elite starting lineup, Tom Crean only needs two or three of those players to carve out minimal spots as role players. Even if they don't, the Hoosiers will still survive.
|Point Guard||Jordan Hulls||Yogi Ferrell|
|Shooting Guard||Victor Oladipo||Maurice Creek/Remy Abell|
|Small Forward||Will Sheehey||Austin Etherington/Jeremy Hollowell|
|Power Forward||Christian Watford||Derek Elston/Hanner Perea|
|Center||Cody Zeller||Peter Jurkin|
Manning Indiana's center position is an under-the-radar player ready to break out onto the national scene. You might not have heard of him, but after this season, you'll definitely know the name Cody Zeller.
There isn't much the National Player of the Year favorite can't do. He's big (7'0", 240 pounds), he runs the floor like a freaking gazelle, he can hit the perimeter shot and he has an array of moves to score with his back to the basket. Throw in some added muscle and toughness, and it's easy to see why everyone agrees he's a future top-five NBA pick.
But that's just the center of Indiana's offense.
The Hoosiers also have a senior point guard who's one of the best shooters (.493 from long range last season) in the country in Jordan Hulls.
They have an electric senior power forward who has hit his fair share of clutch shots and is also one of the best shooters in the country in Christian Watford.
They have a mini Dwyane Wade who only continues to get better in Victor Oladipo.
Will Sheehey, who plays with a massive block—not just a chip—on his shoulder, does anything and everything, and does it well. Yogi Ferrell brings quickness and driving ability to the point guard position.
I guess all of that will suffice.
Oh, yeah, and Indiana's experience, which boasts two seniors and two juniors in its main rotation, and its depth, which could conceivably go 10 deep once everyone is back in the lineup, isn't too shabby, either.
If I have to name something, I'll go with the defense.
Most teams would kill for that to be their "weakness."
Oladipo and Sheehey are hard-nosed defenders on the wing, but Hulls often struggled on that side of the ball while Ferrell doesn't bring elite size or strength, although his quickness should bother some Big Ten guards.
Watford and Zeller are athletic considering their elite size, but that doesn't quite benefit Indiana's interior defense like it should. Both players averaged right around a steal per game, but they don't protect the rim as well as they should.
Futhermore, the absence of Perea and Jurkin, who are supposed to bring along some length and gaudy physical gifts, will not only hurt the defensive integrity of the second unit, but the frontcourt depth, for the time being, will be razor thin.
Nothing seems to phase him, but even more pressure on Cody Zeller's large shoulders can't be a good thing.
Remember Maurice Creek? The guy who averaged 16.4 points per game through the first 12 games of his collegiate career before seeing his freshman season cut short due to an injury? The same one who averaged 8.3 during his sophomore year before once again losing most of his season to injury?
The poor sap who missed all of last year to yet another injury?
Well, he's back and healthy. For now.
Creek has shown the ability to knock down the three and score in a hurry. If he manages to stay healthy, he's going to be the most dangerous seventh or eighth man in the country, and Indiana's offensive firepower is going to get even more, um, fiery.
The, Um, Other Return
Not only is Creek's return to health something to look forward to, but this appears to be the year that Indiana is finally "back."
Last year might have signaled the Hoosiers' return to greatness, but they were often inconsistent (hello, month of January). This year, we should get a much more definitive answer.
The last time the Hoosiers won the Big Ten or made it to a Final Four both happened to come in 2002, and the last time they won a national championship was in 1987.
That's a long drought for an elite national program.
Kelvin Sampson did a good job of setting Indiana back a few years, but it appears that the Hoosiers, who enter the season as a top-five team for the first time since 1993 and the No. 1 team since 1980, are finally ready for a return to national prominence.
This is the year, Hoosier fans.
Well, Indiana is officially back, and the top recruiting classes are stacking up, so there will be plenty more "the year"s in the future. But the chance for a national championship in Bloomington might not get better than this year.
If the reports of Cody Zeller adding weight and muscle to his already-solid frame are true, and it doesn't hurt his speed or athleticism, he's going to be unstoppable. Like, more unstoppable than he already is. Like, carry-your-team-to-a-title unstoppable.
Zeller is one of those special, once-in-a-decade players who saves a program, and unfortunately for Hoosier fans, he'll likely be gone to the NBA next year. But as long as the elite offensive pieces around him don't falter, and there's no reason to expect they will, he has a legitimate shot at bringing a title to Indiana to cap off one of the most poignant two-year careers in collegiate history.
To be honest, the floor for this team is quite high. There is some cause for injury concern, as Christian Watford is coming off a foot injury in the summer and Maurice Creek has had trouble staying healthy his entire career.
But who doesn't worry about injuries?
In retrospect, the combination of inside and outside offensive threats, experience and returning talent makes the odds of a Hoosier disappointment incredibly low.
However, the defense is still far from an elite unit. Sooner or later, the Hoosiers are going to have to stop someone if they want to win a title. There's no question that this team will be able to score on whoever it wants, but there are always cold-shooting nights.
Moreover, should they run into a team that gets hot, the Hoosiers could get "Kentuckyed" and fall victim to an early-round upset in a shootout.
28-3 (16-2 Big Ten), First in Big Ten
The Hoosiers have two big tests outside of the Big Ten. First, they will face UCLA or Georgetown in the Legends Classic in mid-November. Should the Bruins be without electric guard Shabazz Muhammad, Indiana will have the advantage. Georgetown, meanwhile, like always, is flying under the radar.
No matter who the Hoosiers play, it will be a tough game in the Barclays Center.
The second comes at the end of November when the Hoosiers host North Carolina in Bloomington. It will be a highly-touted matchup, but the Tar Heels' youth will make them solid underdogs.
These are both winnable games, obviously, but I just have a feeling the Hoosiers will slip up early in the season with expectations nearly at an all-time high.
Then comes the Big Ten, which is stacked.
Ohio State and Michigan are obvious obstacles, but as always, Michigan State and Wisconsin should be tough while Minnesota, Purdue, Iowa and Illinois could all surprise people.
Still though, this Indiana squad is no joke.
Not even a stacked Big Ten can slow down a return to greatness.