As you may or may not know, it’s basketball season now! And unlike recent years past, we’re kind of getting off to a running start – first up is Kansas in Hawaii on Friday night. So there’s no time like the present to start (or finish, I guess) thinking about what this team’s going to be like this year. There’s been changes, there’s been some important holdovers…so here’s a SLACKCHAT question for the crew: how good will Indiana basketball be this season?
I think they're title contenders – or at least they're as good of a pick to contend as anyone else this early in the process. We saw last year that you can have a Pretty Bad Non-Conference Season (lose to Wake, lose to UNLV, get trucked by Duke) and still rebound to win the Big Ten by a couple of games. The schedule is a bit more harrowing this season and the losses of Yogi Ferrell and Troy Williams can't be understated. It'll come down to how ready guys like Josh Newkirk, OG Anunoby, and presumed-focal-point Thomas Bryant are to taking on huge roles.
I think, even with the return of James Blackmon Jr., the shooting as a whole (they were #1 in eFG% last season) probably takes a step back but the defense (59th overall in efficiency) improves, along with a big improvement on our dismal free throw rate as the offense becomes less predicated on the three ball, mostly out of necessity. Indiana splits their big non-conference games (Kansas, UNC, Butler, Louisville) but I'm not sure how, and goes 13-5 in the Big Ten for an overall record of 24-7, probably just missing out on winning the conference.
Indiana will repeat in the Big Ten. I’m not at all hesitant to say that, but it does come with a caveat. Guard play, which has never been an issue for a Tom Crean team at Indiana, will be crucial to the success of this team. If Robert Johnson, James Blackmon, and Josh Newkirk – all three of which are coming back from surgeries ranging in severity – can provide stability by hitting open 3’s, getting to the rim to keep the defense honest, and defending at a high level, Indiana will be sitting pretty. While Curtis Jones and Devonte Green will get a good amount of run, it’s unrealistic at this point to ask them to be major contributors, although anything received from them would be gravy.
For the rest of the team, it’s a new era for Indiana basketball. While Crean will still try to make the offense buzz at a frenetic pace, the true backbone of this team will be post play, offensive rebounding, and defense, which even feels weird to write. I’m buying the OG hype, although not in the offensive sense as much. His presence on the floor is completely disruptive without him even touching the ball. If the 3-point stroke he has flashed in the exhibitions is for real, we could be looking at a legit superstar at the college level. With all of the other pieces that Indiana already has in place, including Thomas Bryant, Juwan Morgan, and Collin Hartman, Indiana has the depth and talent of a top 10 team. Indiana will repeat as conference champs with a record of 25-6 (14-4) before making a serious run in March. Buckle up, should be fun.
I see the Indiana basketball team in a similar light as the Indiana football team. Offensively, they lost a lot from a really, really good team last year. Yogi and Troy are hard to replace. However, they have some returning pieces and some incoming pieces that should lend itself to still being a good offense. However, like the football team, I still expect some struggles, at least early in the season, as they look to overcome their new roles.
I think where this team will make its mark is defensively. Thomas Bryant is a year older and (hypothetically) a year more mature, which will hopefully help him stay out of foul trouble down low. OG Anunoby was already a lock down defender at the end of last year and should be able to do the same again this season. Guys like Robert Johnson and Juwan Morgan were solid defensively and will have much bigger roles on the team this season.
I think the Hoosiers are going to struggle early this season, though maybe not quite as much as last year. However, as we saw last year, as long as they get it figured out by Big Ten play, all should be fine. I'll peg them for a 25-6 (14-4) record and first in the Big Ten and a deep run in the tournament. Like Elite Eight or Final Four deep.
Here’s my prediction for this Indiana basketball team: Chill for now. There’s a ton of marinating this particular group of players needs — and a ton of unknowns. Indiana’s best player is gone — and the second best player is gone. They’re both on NBA teams. Replacing that production, despite how many OG ANUNOBY IS KAWHI LEONARD articles written by NBA writers watching Youtube clips you read this offseason, will be hard. OG has all the makings of a great player, but the sample size thus far has been less than small. What happens when his workload increases and he’s asked to carry more of the offensive load? James Blackmon hasn’t played a real basketball game since last December and has struggled with lower-body injuries through his entire collegiate career. Can he stay healthy? Josh Newkirk’s had reconstructive knee surgery since he was a blazing fast *backup* point guard at Pitt — and sat out an entire season. Collin Hartman’s out an extended period of time. Juwan Morgan was a walking infirmary toward the end of 2016. Freshmen will be counted on for a good deal of Indiana’s offensive production, probably.
This team could be good. It could be bad. But it’s a team with as many, if not more, unanswered questions as last year’s Indiana team had in November. But it also has a higher ceiling than that team. I’m not giving you a record prediction because, I don’t know man. Basketball expectations on Novemember 11? That leads to, likely, Bad Tom Crean takes by December 11. Ask me about this team around Christmas and not a second sooner.
I think we may see a different IU team than what we've seen in the past years – one where the frontcourt, not the backcourt, is the key to the team's strength. With that in mind it will be pivotal for one of the experienced junior guards – JBJ or Robert Johnson – to take up where Yogi Ferrell left off running the point. Josh Newkirk's development will also be something to watch out for. OG Anunoby is getting a lot of preseason hype, which I'm really happy about because he's already one of the most fun players in college hoops to watch.
But the key cog to this team's success this year will be Thomas Bryant. Can he consistently be the force he was down low like he was in the UK game last year? Or will team find ways to draw him into foul trouble? Ultimately, I think the Hoosiers split their four major noncon games and have a good, but not great, Big Ten season. I see them finishing 24-7 (13-5), with their usual early B1G Tourney exit, but making it through the NCAA Tourney all the way to the... ahh crap they're gonna lose in the Sweet 16 again aren't they?
There are a lot of questions that need to be answered before we really know how good this team will be. Will someone be able to effectively take Yogi's place as a go-to scorer? How will Thomas Bryant adjust to being the constant target of double/triple teams? How long will it take before the freshmen are ready to contribute consistently? The defense and frontcourt are strengths, and it's going to be interesting to see how Crean will continue to build on last season's defensive resurgence. OG and Juwan's versatility especially should give opponents fits. This is a deep roster and it may take Crean some time to figure out how to get everyone enough playing time.
Because of all the uncertainty surrounding this team, I'd expect Indiana to experience some growing pains and lose at least two nonconference games (one of which will cause the fan base to collectively freak out) before edging out Wisconsin and Michigan State for the Big Ten title. Best case scenario: 25-6 and an Elite Eight (or further) run.
We’re going undefeated. Burn, destroy, wreck and kill.