The chase for the top basketball prospects in the class of 2014 is beginning to heat up, and the Indiana Hoosiers are in on several of the most hotly contested battles.
IU targets JaQuan Lyle and Brandone Francis made their decisions last week, choosing Louisville and Florida respectively. The fact that both of those top-40 prospects had the Hoosiers on their short lists offers testimony to the program's recent rebirth, as does the multitude of coach Tom Crean's other options on the recruiting trail.
With so many other blue-blood programs in on the top recruits, however, Crean has to find the right approach to land each player. Here are some conjectures on what the IU staff might be able to offer some of its top targets.
All player photos courtesy 247 Sports.
Pitch: "We're developing star athletes into star players."
When Victor Oladipo showed up at Indiana, he was a three-star recruit with a shaky offensive game. Three years later, he was one of the most efficient players in all of college basketball and became the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft.
Leron Black is already a five-star prospect whose game is respected from 15 feet in. At 6'7" and 215 pounds, however, he'll need to grow a bit to be able to make a living inside mid-range. Failing that, it's his game that will need to expand, with ball-handling and shooting range being the primary focuses.
Indiana is an excellent place to get tutelage on skills like those, as Oladipo's development can attest. Oladipo struggled to put the ball on the floor and had a sickly-looking jump shot. His improvement in those areas will give hope to underhyped recruits everywhere.
The Hoosiers' production of two top-four picks after not having a single player drafted in the past five years will make Tom Crean's stewardship of the program stand out to recruits like Black. As long as a player is willing to put in work every day of the year, Indiana can provide an opportunity to get him where he wants to go.
Pitch: "Stay home and win."
All four major Indiana schools are chasing Indianapolis swingman Trevon Bluiett. Among his 24 offers are invitations from IU, Purdue, Notre Dame and Butler.
An interview with CBSSports.com noted that a school most of the way across the country has taken a piece of Bluiett's home to Los Angeles. New UCLA coach Steve Alford, being well-versed in who's who in Indiana basketball, hired Ed Schilling as an assistant when he took over in late March. Schilling was Bluiett's coach at Park Tudor High School.
If Bluiett's interested in remaining close to home, though, he's got Indiana and Butler charging hard after his signature. Those two schools can offer something that Purdue and Notre Dame simply can't: somewhat recent Final Four success.
The Boilermakers haven't been to the national semifinals since 1980, and it's been even longer (1978) for the Fighting Irish. Indiana, for its part, has only been to two Final Fours since its last title in 1987, while the nouveau riche Bulldogs, now members of the Big East Conference, have been to two in the last four years.
To Tom Crean's credit, Bluiett told CBS that he was impressed with Crean's development of players like Dwyane Wade and Steve Novak at Marquette. In that job, Crean made—you guessed it—a Final Four in 2003.
Bluiett has also gotten some insight into how Crean runs his program by talking to former Park Tudor teammate and current IU point guard Yogi Ferrell.
Is there really no place like home? Trevon Bluiett will provide a compelling case study.
Pitch: "Trust your first instincts."
Australian star Dante Exum (Canberra/Australian Institute of Sport) has taken exactly one visit to an American college. It was to the first school that offered him a scholarship: Indiana.
Since then, power programs like Michigan, Kentucky and Louisville have made contact, but Exum's busy schedule, both domestic and international, has kept him from making any more visits.
The Hoosier coaching staff needs to work on reinforcing his first impressions of the campus and the program, which reports say were highly positive.
“The facilities are great and Assembly Hall on Saturday (Exum visited for IU's home win over Michigan) was on another level,” Exum told Inside the Hall. “I have never seen anything like it before and enjoyed it very much.”
The largest benefit for Exum attending college is a chance to avoid the loaded 2014 draft. If he aims to enter the 2015 draft, though, Crean will need to promise him steady playing time. Exum's size and versatility should make that an easy guarantee to fulfill, since the Aussie can play both alongside and as a backup to Yogi Ferrell.
The old saying says "Better the devil you know than the devil you don't." While it's unlikely any recruits see Crean as a devil (unless they're lifelong Purdue fans, that is), it's a fitting idiom for Exum's case. Hoosier fans are perfectly fine if Exum never takes another official visit and follows what he's learned about IU.
Pitch: "Think lottery."
Indiana was the first school to seriously scout Augusta, Ga. guard Ahmed Hill, dropping into Aquinas High School last September. Since then, his relationship with the coaching staff has done nothing but improve.
"We talk about life a lot,” Hill told Inside the Hall about his conversations with Crean. “About how (going to) Indiana would set me up (prepare) for life. About how the atmosphere is up there. How the people are, the fan base. About me coming up there and getting a feel for it.”
No matter how much admiration exists between player and coach, there are other highly skilled recruiters talking to Hill as well. A CBS Sports interview named Florida, Marquette and Georgia Tech as the other schools working the hardest to land Hill.
At some point, the conversation will turn to what a program can do for the 6'5" guard on the court. Hill's speed and athleticism are impressive, and his stated pride in his defense could conjure comparisons to the aforementioned Oladipo.
Hill will enter college as a much more versatile offensive player than Oladipo was at the same stage. If Hill buys in half as well to the IU system and puts emphasis on transition chances, particularly off turnovers, he could become another in a reborn line of Hoosiers slipping on NBA caps in late June.
Pitch: "You and Noah can have a lot more fun together here."
An AAU teammate of top 2013 recruit Noah Vonleh, 6'10" center Goodluck Okonoboh (Wilbraham, Mass.) would have a familiar face to greet him at Indiana. On a team that will still be hurting for interior size in 2014, he would also walk into plentiful playing time.
The Hoosiers have to hope that Luke Fischer and Vonleh can form a potent inside duo as freshmen, or that sophomore Hanner Mosquera-Perea's development accelerates rapidly after a shaky first year.
Still, none of those three are considered dominant shot blockers at this point in their careers. From day one, Okonoboh could be the Hoosiers' most fearsome rim protector since D.J. White or Jeff Newton.
Adding a player with Okonoboh's defensive skill could help save Vonleh's legs for late-game offensive heroics, the kind that will get a player on highlight films and drafted high after his sophomore season. Teaming with Vonleh on the offensive end could make Okonoboh's job as a rebounder easier, allowing him to keep a good number of possessions alive.
The Hoosiers haven't had a great post duo since...who? Newton and George Leach in the early 2000's? They're halfway to reuniting one of the AAU's best recent pairs, but it's up to Crean to close the deal and bring some Goodluck to Bloomington.