Usually, losing a pair of top 5 NBA draft picks would have a profound effect on a team.
But that might not be the case for the Indiana Hoosiers.
Obviously, replacing talent like Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller is an extremely difficult task. But Tom Crean went to work prior to the 2013-14 season and has hauled in an amazing recruiting class, one that includes five players ranked in the Rivals top 150. The headliner is Noah Vonleh, the 6-foot-9 forward ranked No. 8 by Rivals, and he’s sure to be the focus in Bloomington this season as observers wonder if he’s the next top-5 draft pick to sport the red-and-white-striped warm-up pants.
“He's got a special work ethic, and he's got a special humility,” Crean said at Big Ten basketball media day on Halloween. “And sometimes the word "sponge" can be used and it's really just a lot of hyperbole, when it comes to somebody that really wants to learn the game and get better. Not with him. He's high level in wanting to get better. For somebody with that kind of talent and ability, it's fun to watch. He understands there's things that he doesn't know but he wants to get them. And he wants to get them that day. And the work ethic for an 18-year-old, just two months into his 18-year-old birthday is amazing.”
Vonleh is the star of the show, but there’s plenty of other talent in this whopper of a recruiting class. Troy Williams is a forward from Virginia ranked No. 47 by Rivals, Stanford Robinson is a guard from Nevada ranked No. 56, Luke Fischer is a 6-foot-10 center from Wisconsin ranked No. 94, and Devin Davis, a forward out of Indianapolis, ranks No. 127. And there are three more freshmen after that.
Leave it to Indiana sophomore Jeremy Hollowell — who must feel like the elder statesman on this young squad — to provide a scouting report on this tremendous class.
“Noah is a big guy down low. He has a tremendous work ethic. He can actually handle the ball pretty well for his size, too, out on the perimeter,” Hollowell said at media day. “Luke Fischer’s a real nice post player. I see real great potential in him. Troy Williams is a freak athletically. Stan Robinson, he’s coming along, he’s attacking the basket well, playing well, coming back from his injury. Devin Davis, he’s a real great player, real tremendous rebounder. We’ve got a great freshman class, a lot of wings and big men. So I think we’ll be just fine.”
The Hoosiers were the kings of the Big Ten last season, grabbing the conference championship and spending nearly the entire season near the top of the national rankings. That level of success isn’t expected this season, but don’t tell the Hoosiers that. No matter how different their roster looks, they’re looking to keep winning.
“We have the same goals, same expectations,” Hollowell said. “As any team should, we want to win our league and make the tournament, compete for the national championship. That’s going to be our expectations, and that’s what we want to do. Regardless of what we have and what we lost, we’re going to take what we have and work with it.”
The Hoosiers finished the regular season with a 27-6 record and a 14-4 conference mark, winning the regular-season Big Ten championship before falling to Wisconsin in the second round of the conference tournament. The one-seeded Hoosiers won their first two NCAA tournament games before falling in the Sweet Sixteen to Syracuse.
At the helm
Tom Crean is in his sixth year as the Hoosiers’ head man, turning a six-win campaign in his first year into a national powerhouse over the past two seasons. Crean has shown he can win, and he’s shown he can bring in top recruits. The task now becomes advancing into the deepest rounds of the NCAA tournament. His last two seasons have reached the Sweet Sixteen, but they haven’t gotten farther.
Departed and returned
Eight lettermen are gone from last year’s team, including four starters. Most notable amongst that group are Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller, the Nos. 2 and 4 picks in this summer’s NBA Draft. It’s a lot of talent to replace, and the only returning starters is point guard Yogi Ferrell, who this year will have to morph from facilitator to all-around offensive threat with those key departures.
“His shooting has improved tremendously,” Crean said of the sophomore. “There's been nobody that has come in that gets paid to evaluate that hasn't made a comment about his improvement, especially on the offensive side. He's got to understand that his greatness is going to come this year from what kind of leadership he provides on a consistent basis, when it's not comfortable or convenient; can he get to the basket at a high level.”
Obviously, this freshmen class is much ballyhooed, and it also happens to make up the majority of the Hoosiers’ roster. But, in addition to the wealth of freshmen, there’s the pair of transfers in Evan Gordon (Arizona State) and Jonny Marlin (IPFW). Gordon is the little brother of former Indiana star and current NBAer Eric Gordon and transfers in from the desert after starting in all but 10 games last season and averaging 10.1 points per game.
Indiana will head to Madison Square Garden for the 2K Sports Classic, which includes tests vs. Washington and either Boston College or UConn. The date most likely circled on the calendar is Dec. 3, when the Hoosiers meet up with Syracuse, the team that bounced them from last year’s tournament, in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. Indiana will also play Notre Dame before the non-conference schedule is through.
No one is expecting the Hoosiers to put up another season like the last after the mass exodus from Bloomington. But give Crean a ton of credit for rapidly filling at least part of that void with all those highly touted freshmen. Make no mistake, Indiana should be good again, and racking up wins shouldn’t be a problem at all. But conference championships and No. 1 tournament seeds might need to hold off for at least this season.
Indiana’s next game comes Tuesday night against LIU Brooklyn.
This is the eighth in a series of 2013-14 Big Ten basketball previews, which CSNChicago.com will be rolling out over the next few days as the college basketball season gets into full swing. Be sure to check out all the previews to get ready for your favorite Big Ten team's upcoming season.