BLOOMINGTON, IN - DECEMBER 10: Cody Zeller #40 of the Indiana Hoosiers dunks the ball during the Indiana 73-72 victory over the Kentucky Wildcats at Assembly Hall on December 10, 2011 in Bloomington, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
With nine of 31 scheduled games under the Hoosiers' belt, and with IU in the midst of its longest remaining break in the schedule, it's as a good a time as any to step back and take a look at what IU has done and how the Hoosiers have done it. Of course, we've all been plenty introspective as the season has gone along, and all IU fans are ecstatic about what we've seen so far. A month ago, would you have taken, no questions asked, a bid to the First Four in Dayton? (Raises hand). Now, just making the NCAA seems like an insufficient goal, based on a likely, but not guaranteed, 13-0 non-conference record. As I have documented in prior posts, IU has exceeded the Pomeroy projection in every single game so far, and comfortably so. The "closest" IU came to underachieving in this metric was last weekend's Kentucky game (IU was plus-7; Pom predicted a 6-point loss).
This team still has a long way to go, of course; the NIT remains well within our reach if we don't take care of business in the Big Ten. As Devin noted in his weekly rankings post yesterday, there is a huge pack of teams holding down the middle of the conference. As Pomeroy sees it, Ohio State and Wisconsin are their own tier (projected to finish 13-5 and 14-4 respectively). After that, Michigan State, Indiana, Purdue, Illinois, Minnesota, Michigan, and Northwestern are projected to finish anywhere from 11-7 to 8-10. Before the season, most IU fans were hoping to sneak into the bottom of that pack, perhaps work into the middle. And it a little less dense than expected. Nebraska returned most of its contributors from a bubble team, but seems to have backslid. Iowa showed some promise toward the end of last season, but that is looking more like the benefit of our Hoosier Hospitality in both Hawkeye games last year than any true progress. Penn State is as bad as expected. That's all a long-winded way of saying that while things look good, it will be a tough Big Ten season with plenty of opportunities for a slip-up.
|Verdell Jones III||9||26.0||2.4||6.0||40.7||0.6||1.1||50.0||3.7||4.9||75.0||1.1||2.0||3.1||3.7||2.9||1.0||0.3||2.0||9.1|
Is there any unhappy number on this sheet? Sure, Victor Oladipo and Verdell Jones III turn it over too much. Verdell's field goal percentage isn't great, but he is shooting well from three point range. Tom Pritchard is not going to return to his freshman scoring form, ever. Derek Elston should be shooting better from the line. But beyond that, this is very pretty. First, as a whole, look at the balance. IU has six players averaging between 9 and 15 points per game. Before the season, most of us were hoping for something along the lines of 11/5 from Cody Zeller, with the hope that his presence, rather than his direct contributions, would be the difference-maker. While the latter has come to pass, it's pretty remarkable that he is averaging 15 points per game and has been very efficient doing it. He's averaging nearly two points per shot attempt, and is shooting 76 percent from the line, which further enhances his "unguardability." He leads the team in rebounding, by a long shot. He leads the team in blocks, unsurprisingly, and steals, amazingly.
The sophomores have been excellent. Remember back to signing day for the 2010 class. It was not without controversy that Tom Crean passed on in-state kids to take a chance on two three star recruits from outside the midwest. I think, based on Crean's recruiting in the 2009, 2011, and 2012 classes and beyond, that the program was moving in the right direction regardless, but if this IU team does make it to the NCAA Tournament, would it be an exaggeration to say that Victor Oladipo and Will Sheehey, and Crean's recognition of their talents, will be the main reasons that "the leap" happened a year earlier than anticipated? I don't think it's an exaggeration. Of course, IU is a long way from a guaranteed tournament slot. Injuries happen; slumps happen. Still, IU is in a great position, a position where 9-9, and perhaps a touch lower, probably will be good enough for the committee if IU runs the table in the non-conference.
As for the upperclassmen, Jordan Hulls has been very steady as usual, and has been taking much more initiative at times, although he still needs to find a way to the line more often, where he hasn't missed this year. Christian Watford, of course, has been improving after an injury limited his preseason practice and set him back a bit (Crean elaborated on this on the Dan Dakich show Monday). As the season has progressed, he has been more aggressive on defense and rebounding, although the numbers don't necessarily match the eyeball test. Still, he has come a long way.
As a team, IU has improved in several areas. IU is taking much better care of the ball (19.0 percent on the season) and is forcing tons of turnovers on defense (26.8 percent, good enough for #12 nationally). IU is shooting the ball extremely well: 45.2 percent from three (#2), 53 percent from two (#45), and 74.6 from the line (#37). Rebounding has been the Achilles heel of this team to date. IU is giving up an offensive rebounding percentage of 34.9, which is just below IU's own OR percentage of 34.8. The defensive number is the literally the only number on Pomeroy's page in which IU is below the median, but it could be a factor in the Big Ten, especially against the likes of Michigan State.
So, in general, there is much to like. The individual improvement and the team improvement have been more than anyone could have asked for before the season. Now, we get to find out how IU handles being the hunted, rather than the hunter. It should be fun. More on the upcoming Notre Dame game in the next day or so.