I am going to admit this right up front. This is going to be an incredibly optimistic post. However, in such a down time media-wise for Hoosiers athletics we can only dream about next year. Being as I’m a basketball fanatic through and through, I am always thinking towards the winter months. After leaving class today and walking by Christian Watford and Mo Creek heading into their class (Good for you guys! Think Kentucky players are doing that?) I got to thinking about how next year could potentially be a magical seasons with such low expectations still being the majority of fans’ opinions.
I have to admit that this feeling of optimism is also enflamed by the recent success of my Arizona Diamondbacks. If you asked the majority of AZ fans before the season, most would have said we have a shot at not finishing last, but that is about it. Instead they just won their 40th game of the season yesterday, which took them until August 3rd last year, and are a half game ahead in the division race for the NL West crown. What do the Diamondbacks and Hoosiers have so much in common that gives me such optimism in completely different sports? Youth.
The Hoosiers and Diamondbacks are/were both extremely young teams last year with some expectations of growth to make them competitive in 2010. Instead they both floundered with the occasional flashes of brilliance in between. Young Justin Upton is a baseball prodigy touted as the next great thing, instead in his age 23 season he was somewhere between streaks of amazing and awful. Jordan Hulls showed a similar trend. There were games that he would completely take over and there were games where he barely showed up. This year, Upton is a top 15 hitter in the league. I equally think Jordan Hulls’ junior season is going to show similar growth. No he won’t be a top 15 PG/SG, but he is going to be better. If he is able to turn streakiness into consistency he is instantly a type of player that storms onto the Big Ten scene seemingly out of nowhere. See Jordan Taylor. His increased consistency from one year to the next turned him into the best PG in the Big Ten and an 8 point increase in his per game scoring average. Hulls with some consistency could take his average from 11 to 18 pretty easily.
Last year for the Diamondbacks, players underperformed while battling the injury bug. Stephen Drew was still a top performer at SS, but with some nagging injury issues it limited him from his full potential. Enter Christian Watford, Verdell Jones and Mo Creek. All three of these guys were expected major contributors to last year’s team and a variety of injuries either crippled them (Creek), slowed them (Jones) or render parts of their game ineffective (Watford). Assuming these guys are healthy they can make a Stephen Drew like impact. Drew isn’t flashy, he is rarely going to be the hero of a game, but he is always contributing. Mo Creek coming off his second knee injury just needs to be that, effective. He doesn’t have to take over a game, we’ll do that as a team. Watford will have that capability if he has full use of his left hand this year. Jones will be quicker this year and perhaps those dribble-drive turnovers will turn into dribble-drive layups or at least 15 foot daggers.
This brings me to our underappreciated player that catches a lot of flak but is in fact pretty effective when on the court, Tom Pritchard. Ryan Roberts is the journeyman 30 year old utility player that never got a chance at a full time position in the majors until this year. He isn’t heavily relied upon and that low pressure situation has him as the most valuable 3B in the National League to date. That could be Tom Pritchard this year. He’ll have some defensive help in the post with Cody Zeller which means the fouls should drop dramatically. The help on defense and the lack of focus on him as a primary post threat on offense should get him a ton of non-contested layups and dunks. He may become Josh Harrellson type player, where when given the chance to contribute as the fourth or fifth scoring option he becomes very effective. Hardnosed, smart defense, 8 points a game and 6-8 rebounds a game turns IU into a team with some post presence. (Perhaps this applies to Derek Elston as well)
The final comparison to our Hoosiers and my Arizona Diamondbacks comes in the form of fan favorites still providing those sparks of enthusiasm. In basketball huge plays make a bigger difference than in baseball. In baseball, I would argue there is no such thing as the "10th man". In basketball that is very much the opposite. Fan favorites creating huge plays can change a game completely by getting the crowd in it (or taking the opposing crowd out of it). Victor Oladipo and Will Sheehey please stand up. Growth and any major contribution from these guys would just be icing on the cake to the growth of our veterans. An increase in presence of Oladipo with a cut down on the turnovers immediately gives IU depth and momentum in tight games. The same goes for Sheehey. If his energy and added bulk could turn him into a defensive presence down low to go with his outside-in offensive abilities then we have ourselves a very versatile team. Add a thunder dunk from either in a home game and they are sure to blow the roof off Assembly Hall.
If three of these four scenarios turn out to factual then the Indiana Hoosiers are a competitive tournament bound team with a shot at taking a game on the big stage. I don’t think that any of the scenarios placed forth are that outrageous. Much like the Diamondbacks, we have just seen slow growth in the young guns which has tempered our expectations. If those players make a big transition from inexperienced to veterans over the summer like they should then this is a team no one would want to face. We don’t need a top 15 player in the nation, but if each player grows better and embraces their role as a team then the tournament isn’t a crazy goal. Add in super freshman Cody Zeller and immediate role players Remy Abell and Austin Etherington and I believe that the Indiana Hoosiers will make and win their first game in the NCAA tournament. Perhaps even pull a Marquette and be a big conference team with low expectations to make some noise.