The Indiana University men's basketball team saw their undefeated season end tonight, as the Rebels of Mississippi spotted the Hoosiers an early nine-point lead before settling down and dominating in the school's first round Puerto Rico Tip-Off matchup.
Indiana led 20-11 at the 14:14 mark but relinquished the lead just four minutes later and eventually fell 89-71.
At 2-1, Tom Crean and the youthful Hoosiers have begun to settle into the grind of a major-conference schedule. As fans, we're starting to figure out who the stars are, and who will be relegated to a season spent wearing the candy-striped pants and chatting with assistant coaches.
Let's take a look at the Hoosiers' rotation as it stands today.
Point Guard: Jeremiah Rivers
Doc's kid has started all three games (Crean has gone with the same starting five thus far), but before Ole Miss he was pretty quiet on the stat sheet, totaling just eight points and a 9:8 assist:turnover ratio in heavy minutes. Tonight, we saw why Rivers, the 6'5", 210-lb. Georgetown transfer, is so highly regarded by his teammates.
In 27 minutes of action, largely limited by foul trouble, Jeremiah scored 14 points on 6-of-6 shooting and added seven rebounds, five assists, and two steals. His turnovers are still troubling (four tonight), but Rivers looked like a natural PG bringing the ball up and handling good defense from a high-major opponent.
His rebounding abilities may allow Crean to go smaller at the two as the season progresses, but he needs to improve his defense if he wants to stay out of foul trouble and on the floor for 30-plus minutes a game.
Shooting Guard: Verdell Jones III
Ah, Verdell. As the Hoosiers wound down last year's 6-25 schedule, it was Jones that emerged as Indiana's star in the making. Last year, I called him "a joy to watch on defense and simply nerve-wracking to watch with the ball," and although the 6'5" SG has put on weight and made his mark as a slashing scorer and spot-up shooter, he's still a work in progress while, um, dribbling.
His turnovers are down this season since he's been able to move to the two and bring the ball up less, but he still has a tendency to get too flashy and, say, bounce the ball off his own foot and out of bounds. Or throw it over somebody's head.
Jones scored 17 tonight on 8-of-15 shooting and gives the Hoosiers a legitimate threat from midrange and driving the ball. But he needs to accept a role as a catch-and-shoot (or drive) type of player if he wants to really help the offense grow.
His long-armed defense is still very good as long as he doesn't get caught in transition.
Swingman: Maurice Creek
The 6'5" true freshman from Maryland has stepped into the starting rotation and led the Hoosiers in scoring through three games, averaging almost 20 ppg. He's an athletic player who seems to thrive as a scorer and can bang down low when needed.
In his first real test against Ole Miss, Creek turned the ball over four times. He had only one total turnover in the first two games. As Indiana's secondary ball-handler, Creek needs to be able to slow down and run the offense with confidence.
His obvious talent and poise make Creek a virtual lock to hold down this position throughout the season, but the frosh still has a lot of growing up to do. He's going to have to guard a ton of good players as the year wears on and needs to step up on the defensive end.
Forward: Christian Watford
Watford exploded for double-doubles in his first two games against Howard (14-11) and USC Upstate (17-10) but was held in check tonight, shooting 20 percent for a mere five points. Although his rebounds were also down (five tonight), it should be noted that four of those were on the offensive glass.
Watford, at 6'8" and 220 lbs., was recruited as a small forward type. But undersized Indiana needs him to post up this year, playing the role that the since departed Nick Williams filled last season. He can be a force on the glass and has good range (2-of-5 from outside the arc this year), making him a tough matchup for traditional power forwards.
An important factor for Watford going forward is free throw shooting. He will be going to the line a lot this year and needs to convert his opportunities.
Forward/Center: Tom Pritchard
Pritchard started his freshman year strong, averaging a double-double through the first third of the season before fading down the stretch. He was burdened with being the Hoosiers' sole legitimate big man, battling with the best of the Big Ten as an 18-year-old.
The key for Pritchard this year? Consistency. He played just 10 minutes against USC Upstate and struggled against their 7'3" center Nick Schneiders, racking up four quick fouls. Ole Miss was a better gauge of what Tom can bring to the table. He played a solid 30 minutes, chipping in eight points to go with eight rebounds (four offensive). His thunderous dunk early set the tone for the opening Hoosiers run.
Pritchard needs to stay out of foul trouble. He is the best of IU's big men at running the pick-and-roll sets that make up so much of Crean's offense and is crucial to Indiana's scoring potential in the half-court game. With much of last year's weight off his shoulders, the 6'8" Pritchard has to continue to work hard on both ends of the court, or he risks losing minutes to Indiana's other big men.
Senior juco transfer Devan Dumes was Indiana's most reliable scorer last year and one of their best deep threats. He is still coming back from an offseason injury and has yet to find his shot, going 2-of-10 from deep in the first three games.
If he can get healthy, I expect Dumes to play a lot of minutes at SG, especially alongside Rivers, who has the size to make up for Devan's 6'2", 192-lb. frame. Dumes can also handle the ball and plays competent defense on the opposing point guard, making him the top option off of the IU bench.
Derek Elston, the true frosh from tiny Tipton, Indiana, has made a big impact in his first three games. At 6'9" and 220 lbs., with the frame to add more bulk, Elston is athletic and tough on the inside. He has played an average of 17 minutes so far this year and put up some major numbers in limited time, averaging over nine points, five rebounds, and a steal per game.
He is more athletic than Pritchard and nearly as much of an offensive threat as Watford. Expect Elston to play around 20 minutes a game as the No. 3 big man.
Jordan Hulls, Indiana's Mr. Basketball and the leader of Bloomington South's state championship team last year, has a problem. He is barely six feet tall. Against inferior competition, this isn't so much of an issue, and Hulls gave Indiana good minutes against Howard and Upstate spelling Rivers.
But against the larger players of Ole Miss, Hulls looked lost running the offense and was harassed into three turnovers and an 0-of-3 shooting performance in just 12 minutes. Hulls is going to have to work on his outside shot and his confidence if he wants to survive the Big Ten grind.
Matt Roth is the Hoosiers' token gunner, the Steve Kerr of the team if you will. The sophomore needs to accept fewer minutes this season and be ready to come off the bench and provide instant offense.
Bobby Capobianco, the freshman from Loveland, Ohio, looks like he is a grade or two below Watford, Pritchard, and Elston as a big man. In 18 total minutes so far, he has yet to score or make an impact on the glass. Frankly, I expected more from Capobianco, and hopefully he will develop as the season goes on, since IU needs more than a three-man 4/5 rotation.
Tijan Jobe is seven feet tall. He is also slow and can't shoot. Jobe got dominated by Upstate's Schneiders, the 7'3" German.
An undersized jitterbug from Carmel, Daniel Moore is another guy who will have to make the best of his spot minutes. He has better speed than Hulls but lags behind his fellow PG elsewhere. On the upside, he has gotten a couple of rebounds so far this year, which shows some toughness.
Bawa Muniru was cleared to play later than most of his fellow freshmen, but Indiana could really use him as a backup center. At 6'11" and 242 lbs., Muniru has excellent size and athleticism. He has made a few plays (a block and two points vs. Howard, three rebounds vs. Upstate) in his handful of minutes, but he is buried on Tom Crean's bench until he learns the schemes.
Brett Finklemeier, Stephen Gambles, and Kory Barnett round out the roster. One of them must emerge as Indiana's lead cheerleader and the first man off the bench and high-fiving at timeout time. None figure to see the court often.
Here's what I hope for the Hoosiers to accomplish this year.
Rivers: 27 mpg, improve A:TO ratio, stay active on the boards.
Hulls: 10 mpg, run the offense when Rivers sits.
Moore: 3 mpg, be an energy and fast break threat guy.
Shooting Guards/Small Forwards
Jones: 23 mpg, score around 14 ppg, don't turn it over, be smart off the ball.
Creek: 25 mpg, keep scoring, help run offense as secondary ball-handler.
Dumes: 22 mpg, be a threat off the bench, push Jones for a starting spot.
Roth: 10 mpg, spread the floor as a three-point threat.
Watford: 25 mpg, continue to develop as post-up force, work on defense.
Pritchard: 25 mpg, be consistent on the boards! Stay out of foul trouble.
Elston: 20 mpg, bring energy off the bench, crash the boards, and score a bunch off the bench.
Muniru: 7 mpg, guard dominant big men for stretches. Continue growth.
Capobianco/Jobe: 3 mpg, give the top three some rest without much of a fall-off.