Inexperience is the giant red and white candy-striped elephant in the room during any discussion of the 2013-14 Indiana Hoosiers basketball team. Athleticism, energy, speed and skill are all in plentiful supply among the 13 players who will don cream and crimson next season, but good old-fashioned veteran know-how?
Not so much.
Six of next season's Hoosiers will be entering their first season of college basketball. Three others will be listed as sophomores but barely made a ripple in their maiden voyages.
When comparing the new crop of Hoosiers to previous generations, though, should IU fans be extremely nervous about the coming season?
Past history says...not so much.
Indiana basketball is no stranger to elite recruiting classes. The runaway successes of Bob Knight's tenure lent themselves nicely to attracting clusters of talented players.
Thus, there have been Hoosier teams that received large contributions from freshmen and still produced winning seasons.
The table below shows the average preseason experience levels of the top eight players on every Indiana team since the last championship in 1987. Top-eight players were defined as the top eight players in total minutes, according to Sports-Reference.com. When minutes were not available for every player, the top eight were defined as the leaders in field goal attempts.
Seniors were counted as having three years in, while freshmen counted zero, for obvious reasons.
Next to the experience average is each team's win total for that season.
* - Seasons listed by NCAA tournament year, e.g. 1988 = 1987-88 season.
** - 2014 projected rotation consists of seniors Will Sheehey and Evan Gordon, sophomores Yogi Ferrell and Jeremy Hollowell, and freshmen Troy Williams, Noah Vonleh, Luke Fischer and Stanford Robinson.
The IU teams with at least 1.5 years of average experience recorded 22.8 wins per season. If we isolate further to the teams at 1.75 or better, the wins increase to 23.2 per year.
Now, consider the seasons at the bottom of the table. The five seasons of one year's experience or fewer produced an average of 14 wins.
However, the 2009 and 2010 teams were Tom Crean's first two in Bloomington. Those who recall that 2008-09 team remember a group seemingly cobbled together via open tryouts a la Necessary Roughness.
Remove those outliers, and the 1990, 2001 and 2005 teams produced 54 wins between them. Not powerhouse level, but not shabby, either.
Reason for Optimism
Those three inexperienced squads were led by groups of freshmen that garnered some national attention before they even arrived on campus.
The class of 1989 was, of course, the famed group led by Greg Graham, Pat Graham and some unheralded kid named Calbert Cheaney. Part-time starting guard Lyndon Jones was the only upperclassman in the top eight.
That '89 crew would form the nucleus of the most experienced team on our table, the 1993 squad that likely was one Alan Henderson knee injury away from Banner Number Six.
The 2000-01 team had no seniors and was led by RSCI (Recruiting Services Consensus Index) top-10 recruit Jared Jeffries. Juniors Kirk Haston and Dane Fife were the only upperclassmen in the rotation.
In the 2004-05 season, top-30 RSCI recruits Robert Vaden and D.J. White were second and third in shots, respectively. Fellow top-100 prospects A.J. Ratliff and James Hardy also figured in the top eight, although Hardy took only 48 shots all season.
Expectation for this year's Hoosiers?
There's a very large parallel between those seasons and this one. The 2000 and 2004 recruiting classes both ranked in the RSCI top 10. The 1989 class had two McDonald's All-Americans in Greg and Pat Graham and was acclaimed at the time as one of the best in college basketball history.
The class of 2013 has only one All-American, but it is still ranked fifth in RSCI's list of winners and contains four top-75 prospects.
Like 2000-01, this year's Hoosier squad is likely to go into battle with only two upperclassmen in the top eight. One of those, senior Evan Gordon, is a graduate transfer whose next game at Assembly Hall will be his first, but he still has three years of college playing time to draw upon.
Remember, that 2000-01 team won 21 games, then went on a run to the 2002 NCAA championship game. And that tournament run came without Kirk Haston, who went pro a year early.
All these teams had their growing pains, to be sure. The 2013-14 club won't be any different.
As we've seen over recent college basketball seasons, however, talent can trump experience if the talent goes out and plays hard.
Is Noah Vonleh a new Jared Jeffries? Could Stanford Robinson be a new-age Calbert Cheaney?
If the Hoosiers' talent plays hard, the future will be extremely bright, and it'll get that way sooner rather than later.