For years Indiana has been among the bluest of blue-chip programs. The Hoosiers are blessed with a storied tradition, an ex-coach who's fairly well known, and no less than five national championships to their name.
The only thing IU doesn't have is much to show in the way of recent success. Indiana posted a combined record of 16-46 the past two seasons, and Saturday's 80-61 win at home over Michigan put an end to a six-game losing streak. Heading into tonight's game at Wisconsin, Tom Crean's team stands at 10-8 overall and 1-4 in the Big Ten.
Of course Crean walked into said storied program at a time when it offered a lot more tradition than short-term promise. When former head coach Kelvin Sampson and Indiana parted ways in February 2008 amid a swirl of NCAA allegations, it stood to reason that there would be a rocky transition period for the new coach. That is exactly what has happened, and apparently the transition period is ongoing.
But, hey, let's start with the good news. (Yes, there's good news.) Last November Crean secured a commitment from 6-10 high school senior Cody Zeller of Washington, Indiana. It was rightly regarded at the time as a huge day for IU basketball. Over the past few years the state of Indiana has produced a small army of Zellers (and Plumlees), all of whom made haste for the ACC or Big East. For Crean to land this nationally-ranked in-state prospect was a sign that the Hoosiers will once again be a player in the pursuit of top talent within their own borders. In fact IU fans have been waiting for years for a head coach in Bloomington to bring together "consistently elite recruiting" with "NCAA compliance." It looks like Crean is poised to do just that.
Nor is it necessary to look to the future to see glimmers of hope for IU. Leading scorer Christian Watford has made a huge leap in efficiency on offense from his freshman to his sophomore year. Fellow sophomore Jordan Hulls may not shoot much but when he does it goes in, period. No player in D-I is more accurate from the field than Hulls. Lastly, not enough people have heard of Victor Oladipo. On paper it says the 6-5 freshman from metro Washington, D.C. averages just 18 minutes a game, but actually his playing time's been increasing of late -- and rightfully so. Oladipo accounts for as many possessions as a featured scorer when he's on the floor and he makes 57 percent of his twos. There are certainly signs of progress at Assembly Hall.
But for Indiana to truly become "Indiana" once again, here is what the Hoosiers need to fix, change, and/or transcend on their way back to the top:
Too little health.
The news that sophomore guard Maurice Creek is done for the year after suffering a stress fracture in his right knee in Saturday's win against Michigan is obviously a blow to IU. Keep in mind that as a freshman Creek fractured his left kneecap and missed the Hoosiers' last 19 games. This season Creek was struggling to find the range from the perimeter, but he made well over half his twos and functioned as one of three primary options on offense alongside Watford and junior point guard Verdell Jones. He will be missed.
Too many points from opponents.
Their Big Ten record may be 1-4, but Indiana's problem certainly hasn't been on offense. Crean has watched his team play 312 possessions in conference play, and over that span IU has scored 351 points. That's excellent (1.12 points per possession), head and shoulders above anything the offense has achieved in the Crean era. No, the problem is that over those same 312 possessions opponents have scored an incredible 375 points. And no team can consistently win while allowing opponents to score 1.20 points per trip. Indiana's defense, one that ranked 10th in the Big Ten a season ago, must improve.
Way, way too many fouls.
IU still has the same old-school uniforms that they've had since, well, since I started watching college basketball. The uniforms themselves tell a tale, one of discipline, teamwork, and dedication to fundamentals. Or anyway that's the idea. If there's one thing that looks downright odd coming from players in those uniforms it's the sheer number of fouls that the Hoosiers commit. So far this season Indiana's Big Ten opponents have recorded 150 free throw attempts while launching 242 shots from the field. This yields an FTA-to-FGA ratio of 0.62, which would stand out even in the notoriously foul-friendly Big 12. True, a team that's overmatched on D will often foul at a higher rate than average. But who says IU's overmatched? On the rare possession that doesn't result in a foul, Big Ten opponents aren't necessarily slicing and dicing the Hoosiers. Instead they're making a normal percentage of their twos against this defense. Anyway we've seen overmatched defenses in the past and none of them fouled at this rate. For Indiana to put opponents on the line this often is tantamount to giving points away.
Crean is in his third season in Bloomington, and if the rebuilding job that he was hired to carry out is running a little behind schedule it is nevertheless progressing. The recruiting is picking up, the talented underclassmen are improving, and, most of all, points are being scored in abundance -- both by Indiana and their opponents. When those opponents' points dwindle to a number that is merely average, the Hoosiers will have turned a corner on the long road back to being "Indiana" once again.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider . John emphasizes discipline and fundamentals on Twitter: @JohnGasaway. College Basketball Prospectus 2010-11 is now available on Amazon.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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