The players responsible for Indiana's resurgence are gone. The Hoosiers, as odd as it seems for a blue blood in college basketball, were a comeback story.
They went from 28 wins in three years to 56 the last two. Now, the resurgence must continue without lottery picks Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo and without Jordan Hulls and Christian Watford, two players who scored 3,048 points in their careers and witnessed the lowest of lows and a rebirth in Bloomington.
What Tom Crean has now is a model for how to get it done and the talent that all those wins typically attracts.
Replace Zeller with Noah Vonleh, a McDonald's All-American and future lottery pick. Return a sophomore point guard, Yogi Ferrell, who made all of those scorers around him better last season and helped the Hoosiers become the second most efficient offense in the country.
The 2012-13 Hoosiers started the season at the top of the polls and remained near the top for most of the year. This version will be an up-and-comer who may debut in the preseason top 25 simply out of respect for the program and hype surrounding the freshmen class.
Whether the Hoosiers are an NCAA tournament team with a solid seed (best-case scenario) or NIT bound because of all that youth—think 2012-13 Kentucky—it will come down to these three keys.
1. Can Vonleh Be a Star?
Zeller was the go-to scorer for the Hoosiers as soon as he stepped on campus. He had the body, athleticism and skill to be a dominate force right away.
The good news for Indiana is that signs are pointing to Vonleh having all three as well.
InsidetheHall.com reported last week that Vonleh, who is 6'10", put on 25 pounds this summer and went from 215 pounds to 240.
"A lot of guys I played high school basketball and camps with were saying I got a lot bigger and a lot stronger, this and that," he said. "I just feel like I'm continuing to get better."
Indiana listed Zeller at 7'0" and 240 pounds. It's questionable whether Vonleh can play the part, but he certainly looks it.
Part of Zeller's success should be attributed to Crean and his staff. What made Zeller so difficult to defend was the creativity the Hoosiers employed to get Zeller the ball in space.
For his size, Zeller was quick and could usually beat big men off the dribble. Crean would take advantage of this by putting Zeller in a dribble weave, usually designed for guards.
Crean also used Zeller often as a ball-screener. Zeller had great footwork in these situations (see his pick-and-roll with Ferrell below), and that could be a work in progress with Vonleh. He at least has plenty of tape to study how it should be done.
Where Vonleh might be more comfortable from the start is with the ball in his hands. Vonleh showed in high school that he's capable of stepping away from the blocks. He has range out to the three-point line and can also attack off the dribble—two attributes that show up in his highlight tape.
Crean has had two years to experiment with how to use a mobile big man. If Vonleh can adjust to the speed and physicality of the game as quickly as Zeller did, the Hoosiers will hardly have to change their offensive identity.
2. Will a Perimeter Scorer Emerge?
The Hoosiers went from a good team two years ago to Big Ten champs last season in large part because of the rise of Oladipo.
Oladipo averaged nearly three points more per game as a junior and also became a much more efficient scorer. More than that, he was someone defenses had to game-plan and account for on every possession.
Defensively, it will be hard for IU to ask anyone to replace what Oladipo brought, but offensively, they have three candidates to fill his role: Will Sheehey, Arizona State transfer Evan Gordon or freshman Troy Williams.
Sheehey is the top candidate and could also be IU's go-to scorer if Vonleh is not ready to be the guy as a freshman.
Sheehey has shown the potential the last two years as a scoring sixth man. He averaged 9.5 points per game last season in 22.2 minutes. He's a 35 percent three-point shooter for his career, and he's also a good finisher at the rim with a nice mid-range game. The next step for Sheehey is to see whether he can produce in a more featured role.
Gordon has played both the go-to guy and the role of complementary scorer in his career. Three years ago at Liberty as a sophomore, he averaged 14.4 points per game and took 27 percent of the shots when he was on the floor. Gordon then transferred to Arizona State, where he averaged 10.1 points per game next to ASU star point guard Jahii Carson.
In IU's offense, he might be best suited to slide into role similar to the one Hulls played.
Williams is a super-athletic wing who has the most potential of the three players. His athletic ability gives him the best chance to attack similarly to how Oladipo attacked, although that could be asking a little much. Or is it?
Williams played last season at basketball factory Oak Hill Academy, and his numbers as a senior—16.2 points, 7.5 rebounds and four assists—have some credence, considering the level of competition Oak Hill typically faces.
Even if Sheehey, Gordon and Williams simply match the production collectively of Hulls and Oladipo, that could be enough to give IU one of the better perimeter groups in the Big Ten.
3. Can the Hoosiers Play Fast Again?
The biggest difference that Ferrell made a year ago was speeding up the tempo. The Hoosiers went from an average possession length of 17.2 seconds (82nd-fastest in the country) to 15.7 (10th-fastest). The Hoosiers took their initial shot within the first 10 seconds of the shot clock on approximately 42 percent of their possessions, according to Hoop-Math.com.
Crean wants to play even faster this year, and he believes it's possible because of the depth he's built through recruiting. The Hoosiers could go a legit nine deep, where last season only six players averaged more than 13 minutes per game.
Playing faster is one way to mask IU's inexperience. Crean told Bob Kravitz of USA Today in July:
This year's team will have to try to create more offensive possessions off offensive rebounds and off defense more than we did last year. We could have more depth potentially, so that could give us a chance to be more of a pressure team. I think the more the game is wide open, the better it's going to be for Hanner (Mosquera-Perea), but he's got to learn to play in those tight spaces against double teams and people who might be bigger. He's got to be able to slow himself down in the post and I think he can do that. The trick is, can he play as well in the half-court as he can in an up-tempo game.
One thing that allowed IU to play so fast last season is that Zeller always ran so hard to the offensive end. Going into IU's final game against Syracuse, Zeller had 74 transition opportunities, according to Sports Illustrated's Luke Winn's tracking of the stat.
That was a skill and desire that helped make Zeller so valuable. Applying more defensive pressure will certainly help give the Hoosiers more transition opportunity, but they'll need Hanner Mosquera-Perea and Vonleh to run like Zeller to keep pace with last year's team. Having a point guard like Ferrell who has the vision to reward big men can serve as motivation.
What has to be scary for Crean is that Ferrell is the only one who has played the role he will play for the Hoosiers, and even he may need to up his scoring.
There are a lot of unknowns, and the Hoosiers are unproven. They probably have even more question marks than the 2011-12 team that was following a 12-win season. Zeller showing up gave Crean the piece he needed to turn the program back into a winner.
Vonleh could be that guy this season. On paper, at least, Crean has the pieces and the potential to build off what Zeller, Oladipo, Hulls and Watford started.
All advanced statistics, unless otherwise noted, come from KenPom.com (subscription needed).
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