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Indiana Basketball’s best-case scenario: Kemba Walker

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Indiana Basketball is bad, but in an ideal world we can still dream. I like to dream about the 2010-2011 UCONN Huskies.

NCAA Basketball: Penn State at Indiana Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

This Indiana Basketball team is bad.

It’s a sentiment that I have been struggling with for weeks now, and you probably have too. The reason for that struggle is the fact that from the very beginning we were promised something more. Now looking back at it, were those promises even justified?

Entering the season, the question seemed to be…

“Is this team better than last year’s?”

Conventional wisdom said, “No, you idiot. How can you get better after losing Yogi Ferrell, Troy Williams, and Nick Ziesloft?”, while unwarranted optimism said, “OG ANUNOBY AND THOMAS BRYANT ARE GOING TO DEVELOP INTO TOP-10 NBA DRAFT PICKS AND SCORE 20 POINTS A GAME!!!”

Looking back at it all, it’s okay to admit if you were an unwarranted optimist. Heck, I’ll admit it. My name is Eddie Cotton, and I was an unwarranted optimist. I still am.

From there Indiana Basketball did what they could to try and answer that question for you. Unfortunately, no one really paid enough attention to the actual answer.

In the first game of the season Indiana went all the way to Hawaii and beat the #3 team in the country, Kansas. IU beat Kansas 103-99 behind 26 points from James Blackmon Jr. and a double-double from Thomas Bryant. Some could argue that was the perfect game for IU. Many should have argued otherwise.

If Indiana had lost that game, the immediate reaction would have been “It’s only the first game. It’s unfair to judge them.”

But Indiana didn’t lose that game. Indiana didn’t lose that game, so no one said “It’s only the first game. It’s unfair to judge them.”

Maybe we should have realized that shooting 50% from behind the 3-point line, getting 26 points from James Blackmon Jr., and getting away with 18 turnovers is unsustainable. Maybe we should have realized that Kansas was playing their first game of the season and lacked the chemistry that they have now. Or maybe, the early optimism was all warranted.

At this point, who even cares anymore?

We can look at the rest of the season’s progression, but honestly it’s pointless.

Indiana beat UNC at home in a game in which the home crowd seemed to carry OG Anunoby to 16 points, James Blackmon Jr. to 9 rebounds, and North Carolina’s shooters to 28% from behind the arc.

From there Indiana lost on the road to Fort Wayne, beat some sub-300 basketball teams, and then pitter-pattered their way to mediocrity at 5-5 in the Big Ten.

The theme through all of this? A lack of identity.

Every win this year has been different than the last. Every loss, just the same. The issue with this team is identity, and it always has been.

Last year, from the moment the season started there was no question. Last year’s team was Yogi’s team. That was their identity. Everyone else around him took time to find their role, but all in all it was always Yogi’s team.

This year’s team never found its identity.

How were they supposed to?

With injuries to OG Anunoby, Juwan Morgan, Colin Hartman, and James Blackmon Jr., it’s not that easy. You can’t really blame anyone for that. Figuring out chemistry and roles doesn’t come quickly, and by the time IU started to find a semblance of that this year, injuries immediately derailed all of it.

Now, with three potential starters injured, and one banged up, this Indiana Basketball team is just bad. They’re bad and hard to watch at times, and yet the season isn’t over for them either.

I know it’s hard, but I want to be an unwarranted optimist again. It’s remarkably easy to give up on this season, but I’m already 600 words into this so there is no going back now.

Looking ahead, maybe there’s a chance with this team. The opportunity is certainly still there.

It’s fair to be hesitant about taking positives from IU’s triple overtime victory over Penn State, because it truly was a horrible display of basketball. An absurd amount of isolation offense, lackluster defense, and poorly timed turnovers against a below average Big Ten team should make you hesitant.

Indiana played poorly, but they also showed us some individual flashes which can’t get overlooked.

Thomas Bryant had the best game of his career. Of course, you have to acknowledge that it was against the extremely weak low post defense of Penn State, but it was still his best game.

Devonte Green showed flashes of defensive excellence.

Josh Newkirk scored 27 points and only turned the ball over four times in 46 minutes.

If the three of them can keep that play up moving forward, it leaves room for Juwan Morgan and James Blackmon Jr. to return to full health. Now of course I don’t know if it’s even possible for either Juwan Morgan or James Blackmon Jr. to reach 100% health, but if it is, I would like to propose to you an opportunity to be an unwarranted optimist again.

Why?

I don’t know, it’s more fun than just assuming the worst.

In 2011, Jim Calhoun and the UCONN Huskies had one of the most chaotic roller coaster seasons college basketball has ever seen. The team started the year beating #2 Michigan State and #9 Kentucky at the Maui Invitational. They worked their way up the rankings until they reached #4 in the country before Big East play.

In conference play, the Huskies couldn’t seem to find their identity. They ended the regular season losing 4 our their last 5 and finishing 9-9 in conference play.

From there, UCONN made one of the greatest runs in college basketball history.

On the back of Kemba Walker’s 23 points per game, and a new found defensive intensity, UCONN won 11 straight games. UCONN won the Big East Tournament and the National Championship.

In order to make the tournament, a good benchmark for IU is 9 Big Ten wins.

If James Blackmon Jr. can return healthy, and the rest of this team can find a way to work around him, there is still potential to make a run. IU has shown they can beat top teams in Kansas and North Carolina. If they can find some defensive intensity and rely upon James Blackmon Jr., maybe there’s a chance.

Maybe.

There’s also the much more likely outcome of IU continuing to be bad, and me continuing to be disappointed. With that said, let me be stupid. Life’s fun when you’re stupid.