Big Ten Preview: Indiana

It’s been a long three years for fans of IU basketball, but finally hope is back in the Hoosier Nation. After suffering through the  fallout from the Kelvin Sampson debacle, Hoosier fans had to live through the worst three years in the program’s history. It’s been a long road back, but it looks like they’ve made it. Heading into the Big Ten season, Indiana sports a 12-0 record, including a gigantic win over number 1-ranked Kentucky. They also scored victories over Notre Dame and Butler, and even a couple of true road wins over Evansville and North Carolina State. Those two road wins alone double the number IU has had under Crean the past three years.

Here’s a quick look at the Hoosiers’ lineup and the players who have led the resurgence. IU tends to play mostly man-to-man defense and loves to get out and run. This year’s squad has depth, which has been nonexistent over the past few years. Injuries have started to creep up on the team, however. In the last week, Derek Elston, Will Sheehey, and Verdell Jones have suffered injuries and are currently listed as day-to-day. They’ll need to remain healthy for IU to continue their unexpected run.

Starters

PG- Jordan Hulls (JR): The undeniable leader of the team, the former Indiana Mr. Basketball has been one of the most improved players on the team this year. Coming into the season, point guard play was a major question mark, but Hulls has seemed to be the answer to those questions. He’s an excellent three-point shooter, and he’s automatic from the free throw line. Defense is Hulls’ main weakness, and I wouldn’t call him the greatest passer I’ve ever seen. His play will most likely determine how far Indiana can go this year.

G- Victor Oladipo (SO): Reflecting Oladipo’s status as the fan favorite, the “Ol-a-di-po” chant has been the most common student cheer heard in Assembly Hall this season. The reason for his popularity is his ability to drive, dunk the ball, and energize the team. His midrange jumper and outside shot have improved from last year, but his shooting is still his major weakness. Once Oladipo is able to hit those shots with regularity, the rest of his game will open up tremendously. Oladipo is also the best defensive player on Indiana and is often charged with stopping the other team’s best player.

G- Verdell Jones III (SR): He suffered through the bad years, so it’s nice to see Verdell get the chance to experience some good times in an Indiana uniform. Verdell excels at creating his own shot and can finish around the rim. He has always struggled with turnovers and defense, something that hasn’t changed so far this year. When he gets hot, however, he can score in bunches, and he brings leadership to the Hoosier squad.

F- Christian Watford (JR): The hero of the Kentucky game, Watford probably has the most talent of any player on the team except for Zeller. He can score inside and outside and is incredibly athletic. The issue early this year has been the adjustment that Watford has had to make to a team that has a true center in Zeller. The past two years it has been up to him to score the majority of the points for the team. This year, Indiana is able to run offensive sets including a center, and Christian has at times struggled with making the extra pass. He’s good enough that he can still score one-on-one and he can hit open threes; however, these are often not the best shots to take. If Indiana has hopes of winning tough games in the Big Ten and the NCAA Tournament, however, the team will need Watford to work within the offense at all times. When he does, he can be the best player on the floor.

C- Cody Zeller (FR): The main reason for the Hoosiers’ turnaround this year is the dynamic center from Indiana. The impact he has on the offense is remarkable. Not only is he able to score inside when playing one-on-one, he is the best passer out of a double team that I’ve seen on an Indiana team since Jared Jeffries. He is able to find the open man almost every time, and with a good three-point-shooting team, this completely opens up the offense. Another aspect of Zeller’s game that is so rare for a big man is that he runs the floor incredibly well. He almost always beats his man down the floor and is able to handle the ball on a fast break as well. While he has great moves on the post, he still needs to work on his shot from 5 to 15 feet. Once he is able to step out a few feet and hit that shot, he’ll be unstoppable. He’s also a great free throw shooter, removing the defense’s ability to just put him on the line. As the most talented player on a team without much depth inside, Zeller must stay out of foul trouble, something he has managed to do thus far this season.

Rotation Bench Players

SF- Will Sheehey (SO): The first guy off the bench is almost always this greatly improved sophomore. Sheehey has always had athleticism, as evidenced by his dunk against Iowa last year, but his outside shooting has improved so much that he is now a true threat from anywhere on the court. He’s also a very good defensive player, although not quite on the level of Oladipo. His ball handling can still use improving, however.

F- Derek Elston (JR): The main sub at the forward position or if Crean is looking to go big is Elston. He is always very active when he’s in the game, and he has a knack for finding loose balls. He’s also improved his midrange shot and has knocked down a number of threes. Elston also tends to bring great energy off the bench.

C- Tom Pritchard (SR): A senior, Pritchard has had to adjust to coming off the bench for the first time in his Indiana career. Not the most athletic or skilled shooter or defender, Pritchard can still be effective in the right matchups. Again, Zeller must stay out of foul trouble, as Indiana is not the same team when Pritchard is playing center.

PG- Daniel Moore (SR): A former walk-on, Moore now has the assignment of bringing energy and defense. He has the ability to get deflections and trigger fast breaks. Moore works as a great change of pace for Hulls, especially when the team needs a lift. His shot is not very good, however, so  for Indiana to be successful, Hulls will need to spend the majority of the minutes at point guard.

Most teams generally settle in at a 8-, 9-, or at most 10-man rotation when Big Ten play begins. It is my guess that the  nine guys listed above will be a part of Indiana’s regular rotation. The following three have received minutes this year in the preseason, however, and they could provide much-needed depth if Indiana runs into foul trouble or if they need a spark when one of the above is underachieving.

PG- Remy Abell (FR): A point guard from Kentucky, this rookie has shown flashes of talent, but he has not been consistent enough to justfiy regular minutes. Crean seems to trust Moore at this point over Abell, which is understandable considering that Abell is just a freshman. I do believe that Remy has the talent to play at this level, however, and getting him experience in order to back up Hulls could prove invaluable.

F- Austin Etherington (FR): Another freshman, Etherington has also had some good moments; however, he hasn’t been able to crack the rotation at this point. He seems to have a decent upside, but he may have to wait until next year to start logging more substantial minutes.

SG- Matt Roth (SR): This sharp-shooting senior is coming off a major injury last year, but he seems to be fully recovered. He is absolutely deadly when left open, but he doesn’t have the ability to create his own shot. In addition, his defense is not at the Big Ten level, which prevents him from playing major minutes. He could see time in late game situations or when the Hoosiers desperately need some instant offense.

 

Expectations

Heading into this season I wanted to see improvement from the team as the season progressed, and I was hoping for a trip to the postseason. That meant one game over .500 and a trip to the NIT. My thought was that it was going to take until next year and the arrival of “The Movement,” aka one of the top ranked classes in the nation per Rivals , before The Hoosiers would be able to truly contend on the national stage. The early returns and the win over Kentucky have shifted expectations, however, and now a good goal for the team at this point is a trip to the NCAA Tournament.  The Big Ten season starts off very tough for Indiana: they play tonight at Michigan State, and then the team heads home to face one of the best teams in the nation, Ohio State.

 

Predictions

Before the season I thought IU would go 9-3 in the preseason, so maybe I’m not the best at this; however, I think IU will go 11-8 in the Big Ten. That’s if they win all their home games except against Ohio State, and then get wins on the road at Penn State, Nebraska, and Iowa. They should win their final nonconference game, against NC Central, and I think they’ll go 1-1 in the Big Ten Tournament. That would put their final record at 25-9. I think in a tough Big Ten and with the win over Kentucky, that will be good enough for a 4 or 5 seed in the tournament. I’m predicting a trip to the Sweet 16, which is just insane, considering that going into this year I expected one game over .500.

Regardless of how the season turns out, however, Indiana is fun to watch again, and at this point that’s all I need. If you’re an Indiana fan, let me know what you expect from the Hoosiers this year. If you’re a fan of another Big Ten team, how do you think your team will hold up in the Big Ten race?

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