Kentucky may have won the national championship last year, but the college basketball offseason belonged to Tom Crean and Indiana.
Star player Cody Zeller graced the cover of preseason magazines, commentators raved about the Hoosiers’ returning talent and incoming recruiting class and Indiana was granted the No. 1 spot in the initial AP and Coaches’ Polls.
The Hoosiers’ dominating performance in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge against North Carolina did nothing to quell everyone’s glowing opinion about them. However, that air of invincibility dissipated a bit when underdog Butler knocked off Indiana during a neutral-court matchup.
Despite the loss, the goals of a Big Ten and national championship are still in place. Read on to see five potential roadblocks that stand in the way of the Hoosiers and a Big Ten title.
Kevin “Yogi” Ferrell was a highly-touted recruit that was expected to gradually see more playing time as the year went on for Tom Crean. Thus far, he has (probably) exceeded early expectations and is on the floor for nearly 30 minutes a night.
However, he is still a freshman and is prone to the same mistakes as many other first-year players. You would be hard-pressed to find another conference with better point guard depth ready to take advantage of those mistakes than the Big Ten.
Ohio State has the defensive wizard Aaron Craft, Michigan has athletic freak Trey Burke, Michigan State has the consistently steady hand of Keith Appling and Minnesota has the underrated Andre Hollins.
Even guys like Brandon Paul of Illinois or Tim Hardaway, Jr., who are not necessarily point guards, are heavily involved offensively and defensively at the top of the key and can make life difficult for Ferrell.
This is not to suggest that Ferrell is a liability in the slightest for the Hoosiers, only that in close games, there will be other talented playmakers ready to pounce at the slightest freshman mistake.
With 12 members now in the Big Ten after the addition of Nebraska, there is somewhat of an unbalanced schedule in the league.
Every team doesn’t go to every venue across the conference, which means the various strengths of schedule are not exactly even. Indiana must have drawn the short straw this year.
The Hoosiers have to make a trip to Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Illinois and Minnesota, and not a single one of those games will be easy. If think will Tom Crean’s bunch is going to win in every one of those raucous environments, you better think again.
Winning on the road is never easy in college basketball, let alone in the toughest conference in the country. Look no further than Indiana’s league-opening trip to Iowa (or Illinois’ loss at Purdue) for confirmation.
There will be multiple road losses for the Hoosiers in conference play this year, which may cost them dearly in the final standings.
The downside to being the preseason darling for college basketball experts everywhere is that there is really nothing to do but fulfill or fall short of those high expectations. Indiana has to be careful not to believe in its own hype.
Furthermore, the Hoosiers will have a bullseye on their back after all the preseason accolades and magazine covers. They will get the best shot from every single team in the Big Ten, which can be grinding over the course of an 18-game schedule.
If Indiana has one off night, it will probably lose that game (unless it is against Penn State or Nebraska). That type of game-to-game consistency is not easy to muster every time out in a league as demanding as the Big Ten.
The Big Ten prides itself on its defense, which means if Indiana struggled somewhat with turnovers during the nonconference portion of its schedule, it could very well be an issue during league play.
There are currently eight players on the Hoosiers roster that average more than one turnover per game as an individual. Furthermore, Victor Oladipo and Yogi Ferrell average more than two turnovers a night and Cody Zeller is at 1.6, which is concerning because they each handle the ball so much.
If Indiana’s key players don’t cut down a bit on their turnovers, defensive-oriented teams like Ohio State and Michigan State could make life very difficult for Tom Crean on the sidelines.
It was presumed that Indiana was the best team in the Big Ten (and country) heading into the season, but there is a chance that is not actually the case.
Michigan is ranked No. 2 in the country and is still undefeated at this point, with wins over Kansas State, Pittsburgh, Arkansas, West Virginia and North Carolina State under its belt. Furthermore, most of those victories were accomplished in dominating fashion.
The Wolverines are currently fifth in the country in field-goal percentage and boast arguably the best backcourt in the entire league (if not nation) in Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr. However, the scariest thing about John Beilein’s team is that there is still plenty of room for growth.
Freshmen Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary came to Ann Arbor with sky-high expectations, but neither have completely found their rhythm yet. If those two continue to improve and the emergence of Nik Stauskas has not been a fluke (I don’t think it has), Michigan will be even better by March.
There are plenty of great teams in the Big Ten, but Michigan may be the best of the bunch.