staff, October 29, 2013

Last year, the Hoosiers moved on from a rebuilding job to regaining its place among the best teams in college basketball. But Indiana came up short against Syracuse?s 2-3 zone in the Sweet 16.

Today I?ll look at whether IU can climb back up the mountain this season.

2013 Record: 29-7 (14-4)
Conference Offensive Efficiency: 1.14 (1st)
Conference Defensive Efficiency: 0.98 (5th)
Percentage of Conference Minutes Returning: 31
Percentage of Conference Minutes Played by Returning Freshmen: 21

Shots fired. In a stunning display of abuse of power by a headline writer, the Wall Street Journal labeled an Indiana team that won the most difficult conference outright, and which racked up 29 wins along the way, ?The Biggest Underachiever in NCAA History.? The basis for such a claim was IU?s failure to advance past the Sweet 16 despite boasting two top-5 NBA picks on its roster. Even if that were a worthy way to measure such a thing (it isn?t), Indiana certainly shouldn?t be at the top of the list-not even just for this season. Indeed, the team with the top overall pick had no need to unpack a suitcase during the postseason, dropping its first game of the NCAA Tournament. Kentucky missed the Tournament altogether, despite the presence of two first-round draft picks (that one was injured mid-season makes little difference on this front). In 2012, UNC needed overtime to get all of one round further than Indiana, despite the presence of a staggering four first-rounders on the roster.

Of course, ?Indiana?s Wildly Successful Season Finishes on a Mildly Disappointing Note? doesn?t make for good clickbait, either. And I?m sure that there are a number of Hoosier fans that still are enraged over the mere mention of a 2-3 zone-not because losing in the Sweet 16 is a badge of shame, but rather because of the very real possibility that a window has just closed.

This is, after all, a program that plays for national titles. There are five banners hanging in Assembly Hall, more than all but two other programs. There?s no denying that the Hoosiers are one of basketball?s ?blue bloods.? So while 29-win seasons and Big Ten championships are nice, there?s no completely successful season of Indiana basketball that does not include a title.

That last paragraph is one that would not have looked out of place in 1990, or even 2000. But now? Entering freshmen not only were born nearly a decade after the Hoosiers? last title, but Indiana has advanced to the Sweet 16 on just three occasions in their lifetimes, and only once has the team gone further than that. To the thousands of students that pack Assembly Hall, these are the best of times.

But there?s little doubt that last season represented an opportunity to raise the bar. There was a ton of talent and experience on Tom Crean?s roster, and while they had a heck of a season, it wasn?t good enough to recapture Indiana?s former glory.

Which brings me to this season. The good news is that there?s a lot of talent still on the roster. But most of it is relatively unknown. The known quantities are Yogi Ferrell and Will Sheehey, who were chosen to be a part of the U.S. World University Games? roster. That?s a good sign. What?s less of a good sign were things like the fact that Sheehey only attempted 11 three-pointers, Ferrell made just 31 percent of his long-range attempts, the senior Sheehey was the 8th man in the rotation, or that all of this was achieved on a team that finished in 9th place. That?s the bad news, and small sample size caveats apply. The good news is that Ferrell displayed a level of aggressiveness that was missing from his freshman campaign. Expect that to carry over to Indiana?s season.

Beyond those two, potential abounds, whether it?s Jeremy Hollowell?s tantalizing rebounding and shooting skillset, Hanner Perea?s or top-10 freshman Noah Vonleh?s athleticism, or the wing scoring skills of Stanford Robinson and Troy Williams. And although Indiana?s outside shooting has garnered a lot of attention over the past couple of years, the real engine behind this offense is its ability to get looks at the rim. That?s where Hollowell, Williams, and Vonleh in particular are going to have to contribute. If they do, then the ceiling on this team is still pretty high, with the floor being a season that falls just short of an NCAA Tournament appearance.

That?s an admittedly wide net I?m casting, but such is the case with a young, talented, and unproven roster. But this should still be an NCAA Tournament team, lest it ?underachieves? more than last year?s squad.