While the Sweet 16 loss to Kentucky will sting for awhile, there's a lot to look forward to with this group. Indiana Basketball is back in a big way. Let's summarize the season...
A: Remy Abell
The freshman from Louisville sort of flew under the radar, especially with #40 being the headliner of the recruiting class. But Abell certainly played some vital minutes for these Hoosiers, and there's no reason he won't be a part of things for the years to come. He's a good defender, and hit some big shots down the stretch in a couple of games.
|Cody Zeller helped Indiana to a 27-9 record|
Tom Crean certainly put Indiana back on the map with the successful recruitment of Cody Zeller. Zeller's commitment set off a chain reaction of great talent, especially in-state talent, on the way to play for the Hoosiers. The Class of 2012 is among the country's best, and four of the incoming freshman make their home in Indiana. Certainly the season the Hoosiers just had won't hurt either.
C: Christian Watford
The junior from Birmingham, Alabama might want to take up permanent residence in Bloomington after graduation. That's because this shot on December 10th is a moment all Hoosier fans will remember for the rest of their lives. Plus, Watford will likely never have to buy a drink in Bloomington ever again. That game aside, Watford had a huge junior season. 12 points and six rebounds per game might not sound like a lot, but his impact was felt on every game, positive or negative. When he played well, Indiana was a better team. Here's hoping he stays in college for his senior season.
For the first time in four years, and the first time in the Tom Crean era, the Hoosiers made the Big Dance. I'll be completely honest...I was definitely not expecting this team to make the tournament, much less be a number four seed. I guess I underestimated the impact Cody Zeller would have. Also, Indiana made the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2002. That's a long time for a program like Indiana.
E: Elston, Derek
Another junior, Derek Elston's game improved quite a bit this season. He became more of an all around player, playing more under control and also increasing his shooting range. While he didn't shoot a lot of three's, he knocked down more than half of the ones he took (16-29). He also posted a great overall field goal percentage (49.5%). He'll never be a star, but he'll always be an effective role player.
F: Finishing Games
Young teams have trouble finishing games. It's a fact of sports. As the Hoosiers become more upperclassmen-heavy, they're going to be better at finishing. That first became apparent to me in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, when they played at NC State. They trailed the Wolfpack by seven at the under-8 media timeout of the second half, but ended up winning by 11. The Wolfpack eventually upset San Diego State and Georgetown before losing to Kansas in the Sweet 16.
G: Great Start
Indiana went into the Big Ten undefeated at 12-0, which equaled their win total from a year ago. That start included wins over #1 Kentucky, at NC State, Butler, and Notre Dame. That's one Final Four team, one Sweet 16 team, another tournament team, and a Butler team who was in the national title game the year before. After losing the conference opener to Michigan State, they beat another Final Four team in Ohio State, and another tournament team and eventual Big Ten co-champion Michigan. 14-1 is never a bad way to start the season.
H: Hoosier Nation
I wonder how many fanbases could endure what Hoosier Nation has endured over the past three seasons. To watch a college basketball powerhouse win six games because the previous coach left the program in an absolute mess was depressing, and that was only my fourth year of being a true Hoosier fan. I can't imagine what fans who lived through the Knight era could have thought. That being said, the Hoosier Nation stuck with the team, understanding all along that better times were ahead. Hoosier Nation has been patient, and that patience is finally paying off.
The Hoosiers owned the state of Indiana this year. Not only do they have four high level Indiana prospects coming in next season, but they didn't lose a single game to another Indiana-based university. They beat Evansville, Butler, Notre Dame, and Purdue (twice). Not a bad way to announce your return to prominence. Well played, Tom Crean.
J: Jordan Hulls
The junior from Bloomington was the starting point guard all season long, despite several "experts" saying that Verdell Jones was the starting PG. What Jordan lacks in size, he makes up for in shooting percentage. Hulls was nearly automatic from beyond the arc. He shot 40% from back there, and has a quick release that makes up for the unorthodox shooting motion. He's also developed the ability to pull up off the dribble from mid-range. Some say the arrival of Yogi Ferrell signals a reduction of playing time for Jordy, but I think the senior-to-be will have every opportunity to be in the starting lineup.
K: Kentucky Game
As I mentioned earlier in the blurb about Christian Watford, December 10th 2011 is a night I won't soon forget. Personally, I could only watch the first half live. I was on pins and needles all night before I could get back to the television and watch the rest of the game. Some will say that Indiana was lucky to win that game. Anthony Davis was in foul trouble, Terrence Jones didn't show up, and Watford had to hit a three at the buzzer, but nevertheless, Indiana won. Won't ever forget it.
There were nine of 'em. I certainly expected more. The first one didn't come until almost 2012, as I mentioned earlier. Certainly there were some losses easier to take than others (at Michigan State, at Ohio State, at Wisconsin, Sweet 16 to Kentucky) but then there were the ones that shouldn't have happened (at home to Minnesota, and at Nebraska).
M: Matt Roth
Matt Roth was never a superstar for Indiana, but he had his moments in the spotlight. He scored 29 points, hitting nine threes his freshman year against Ohio State. This season, he was in the regular rotation for most of the season, simply because he was ultra-reliable from distance. He was 42-77 on the year, good for 53%. He was also part of Crean's first recruiting class, among the group who came to Indiana when nobody else would.
N: Next Step
Not many were expecting the program to take this big a step this early on. I mentioned that I, personally, was not expecting this. So what's the next step? Did they take too big a step too soon? With great recruiting class coming in, I suppose the sky is the limit. They must make sure, though, that they stay within themselves and the upperclassmen must be good mentors to the freshman. I've had a few people tell me that this is a Final Four caliber team. I'm not sure about that, but another tournament run would be fun.
O: Oladipo, Victor
He's the Hoosiers' best on-ball defender, their best dunker, their best slasher, and their best finisher at the rim. They say the biggest improvement for a college basketball player comes between freshman and sophomore year. It held true for Oladipo. He's the most athletic player Crean has had come through Bloomington so far, and he's only going to get better. He loves playing, and he loves Indiana. He did have a shooting slump for most of the year, though. He just didn't look comfortable shooting from distance. It reminded me of the slumps Lance Stemler and Eric Gordon went though.
P: Pritchard, Tom
Ah, what can I say about Tom Pritchard? He came in as a freshman as the team's starting center. He tore up the non-conference, but met his match in the Big Ten. To say that Tom gave his all is an understatement, even if it meant getting called for what must have been a record number of illegal screens. The only good thing about Tom's departure from Indiana is that it signals progress. I say that in a positive way, because Tom helped recruit better, more athletic players. His contributions to the program can't go overlooked.
Q: Quite a Rematch
On Selection Sunday, Indiana heard their name called early, seeded fourth in the South region. Number one overall seed Kentucky was in the same region, and the two were headed straight for a Sweet 16 rematch in Atlanta. I was expecting Kentucky to win, partly because the game wasn't in Bloomington, and I didn't expect Terrence Jones to disappear again. He didn't, scoring the first five Kentucky points. Davis did get into foul trouble, committing his second with about 15 minutes left in the first half. The Hoosiers were poised to make a run with Davis on the bench, but Cody Zeller picked up his second a few seconds later. Indiana was able to keep it close with Davis out, but in the second half it was a different game. Davis made his impact felt, and Kentucky made 35 of 37 free throws for the game, sealing a 102-90 victory on their way to the Final Four.
R: Ranked Teams
Indiana made a habit of beating ranked teams at Assembly Hall. #1 Kentucky fell in December, #2 Ohio State fell on New Years’ Eve, and #5 Michigan State fell later in the season. You rank ‘em, we spank ‘em.
Four players (Zeller, Hulls, Watford, Oladipo) averaged in double figures, and the Hoosiers led the Big Ten in points per game. A lot of this had to do with the tempo the Hoosiers played at. They were at their best in transition, which of course means a lot of layups. The Hoosiers led the conference in field goal percentage as well as three point percentage. A great year shooting the basketball for the Hoosiers.
T: Tom Crean
Four years in, I think Tom Crean is ahead of schedule. Coming into this season, I heard a couple of national radio hosts (cough, Dan Patrick, cough) theorize that it was now or never for Crean, but clearly they haven't closely followed the program. Crean's relentless recruiting has brought the program back from the dead, and what he did with the talent he had on the floor this year deserves commending, too. I underestimated the impact Cody Zeller would have, but Crean did a great job meshing all the talent to get 27 wins. It's also worth noting that the Hoosiers' turnaround was the biggest in college basketball this season. They were one win away from equaling their win total from the previous three seasons combined. Tom Crean is here to stay.
As I've mentioned before, I wasn't expecting the Hoosiers to be this good so soon. I underestimated the impact of Zeller, and the improvements of Oladipo and Sheehey was huge. I think they took the entire country by surprise, too.
V: Verdell Jones III
Over the course of his four years at IU, Verdell has been the target of much criticism because of his propensity to turn the ball over. I think, though, he was mis-used as the point guard. He's more of a shooting guard, and he proved that over time as he developed a lethal mid-range pull up jumper. He also had a knack for making big plays late in the game. When he tore his ACL during the Big Ten Tournament win over Penn State, the building was absolutely silent. Granted, it was a pro-IU crowd, I think everyone in the building realized what Verdell meant to the program over the last four years. Kind of ironic that he didn't get to participate in the NCAA Tournament he worked so hard to get to. It's also kind of a symbolic passing of the torch, though, that he's handing the keys to the program over to the future. Thanks, Verdell, for all that you did.
W: Will Sheehey
I don't know if anyone has more fun playing the game than Will Sheehey. The surprisingly athletic 6'6" sophomore had a great season, spending most of it as the first man off the bench, providing a spark on both ends of the floor. He's a great slasher, a pretty good shooter as long as he's open, and he can defend as well. If he does nothing else at IU, he'll also be forever remembered for knocking down the game winning shot against VCU in the Sweet 16.
X: X Factor
Uh, this kid named Cody was pretty good. Indiana was mostly the same team this season, plus a 6'11" freshman from Washington, Indiana. He has good post moves, stayed out of foul trouble for the most part, and he runs the floor as wells as any big man I've ever seen. He's projected to be a high draft pick right now, but I think he needs to put on some weight before he can be successful in the NBA. Also, judging by his older brothers, he values education. I think he stays at least one more year.
Personally, I've only been following the team for seven seasons, but talking to older Hoosier fans, this team reminded them of teams of old. Also, this team makes the last three seasons somewhat worth the wait. Hopefully this year's team was an indication of things to come.
Z: Zeller, Cody
I've gushed enough about Cody Zeller, so I'll just reiterate how important he was to this year's team. Without Zeller, the Hoosiers don't have an inside presence. They wouldn't be leading the conference in scoring and field goal percentage, and most importantly, they wouldn't have 27 wins, and most likely wouldn't have been in the NCAA Tournament. Stay as long as you can, Cody!!!