The Indiana University men’s basketball team is heading towards the meat of its Big Ten Schedule at 12-6 this year, including a 2-3 stint in league play. After a season-opening win over Kansas, mixed with a résumé-building victory over North Carolina, the Hoosiers have been up and down — mostly down — since the promising start. That said, here are three points to consider after watching Indiana’s season to date.
No Love for Bryant
If Indiana fans have been looking for 6-foot-10 forward Thomas Bryant, they won’t find much of him in recent box scores this season. After a stellar freshman campaign, Bryant has failed to show any major improvements in his second season in Bloomington.
The emotional sophomore big is averaging 11.6 points and 6.9 rebounds per game this season but has fallen off the map as of late. His numbers are slightly better than last season, besides his field goal percentage, but it doesn’t exactly mean he’s improved.
Usually players experience the biggest leap in skill level in college between their freshman and sophomore seasons. Bryant has improved, yes but not at the same rate players like Troy Williams and Victor Oladipo did before him. As a rookie on campus, he shot 68 percent from the field. This season Bryant is shooting 51 percent and has been less aggressive around the basket.
Indiana has always had problems in Crean’s tenure with feeding the post. This year, even with a potential first-round pick in this year’s NBA Draft, the Hoosiers are doing the same. Bryant has scored just 14 points in the team’s past two games. At the beginning of the season, he was named a preseason All-American by Blue Ribbon.
Indiana can be elite defensively, when it wants to be. They have length on the perimeter and wings, size and shot blocking ability down low and quickness all around the court. Instead, the Hoosiers focus solely on beating a team at the offensive end. No matter what he or his players elude to after games, Crean and Indiana’s focus is not about getting a stop on every possession.
They, judging by their shot selection and number of possessions per game, just want to shoot the other team out of the gym. That’s fine against lesser teams, but Indiana needs more of a balance. In the Big Ten, against teams that excel at doing both, the Hoosiers can’t afford to play one brand of hoops.
When Indiana locks down defensively, it can beat any team in the country. Sadly, they have already shown what they can do if they don’t. The tools are there but a 2-3 start in the league play doesn’t make a third title in five seasons seem likely for a team now sitting firmly on the NCAA tournament bubble.
Will they get in? Probably. But the Hoosiers can all but kiss a No. 1 seed, which seemed likely, goodbye. Statistically, Indiana ranks 11th in the conference in scoring defense (69.1), according to bigten.org, and first in points per game (84.6).
One of Crean’s biggest mistakes this past year revolves around one of his biggest strengths — recruiting. When Pittsburgh transfer Josh Newkirk signed with Indiana approximately two years ago, the Hoosiers head coach thought he had found Yogi Ferrell’s replacement. Ferrell, who is now playing in the NBA with the Brooklyn Nets, spent his senior season bringing Newkirk up to speed with basketball in Bloomington after he was forced to miss an entire season.
This year, though, Newkirk and other Indiana guards are having trouble providing the same amount of leadership and playmaking ability that the point guard position requires. Crean recruited athletic wings, big men and shooters. However, he missed on a point guard. Crean must have thought a two-guard would suffice with the keys to the team.
Newkirk, a redshirt junior, and juniors James Blackmon Jr. and Robert Johnson have always been complimentary guards on their teams, meaning they flourish more without the added pressure of controlling the offense. Nonetheless, it would be hard to imagine another player being as productive as Ferrell was last season, who left Indiana as one, if not the most, celebrated guard at the school since Isiah Thomas in the 1980s.
With this season’s experiment obviously failing so far, it will be interesting to see who Crean and company recruits head into next season.