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Tom Crean's Hoosiers return to title contender status
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The first practices of college basketball season begin in mid-October, and Athlon Sports 2012-13 preview annuals have arrived on newsstands all over the country.
To prepare for the start of college basketball season, we will preview one team each weekday, counting down to the first official day of basketball practice on Oct. 15, or for some teams on Oct. 12.
We continue our countdown with a preview of No. 1 Indiana.
Less than one hour after the 2012 college basketball season ended, Indiana coach Tom Crean discovered the expectations his Hoosier program would face this season: IU was ranked No. 1 in the nation in a hastily released preseason poll.
This is why: Indiana returns four starters from a team that won 27 games, including three against top-5 opponents as well as two in the NCAA Tournament. Two of the returnees — Cody Zeller and Christian Watford — could have departed for the NBA. Add a five-player, top-10 recruiting class to a pair of experienced reserves.
Quite a change for a program that had only won 28 of 94 games the previous three seasons.
“When Coach Crean and I first got here, there’s no way we were even in the talk,” says Jordan Hulls, the team’s senior point guard. “Now it’s pretty special for us to be in that talk, but those polls don’t really mean anything until the end of the year.”
Zeller, the team’s center, was billed as the recruit who made it cool to sign with Indiana again — and he justified the hype from the opening dribble. He led the Hoosiers in scoring and rebounding and tied for the team lead in steals, while giving Indiana its first legitimate low-post presence in four seasons.
Zeller would have been a top-10 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft but said he wasn’t “ready to grow up.” Another summer in the weight room should make him capable of a double-double every night, and Crean wants Zeller to become a perimeter threat.
Watford’s 3-pointer at the buzzer to beat Kentucky was The Shot of the Year in college basketball, but more impressive was the way he finished the season. Watford averaged 16.7 points and 7.7 rebounds over IU’s final seven games, grabbing at least 10 rebounds three times.
Will Sheehey, hard-nosed and relentless, plays small forward. Sheehey needs to expand a solid mid-range game. Derek Elston, another senior, can play all three frontcourt spots, but is trying to improve his rebounding. Three freshmen — Hanner Mosquera-Perea, Jeremy Hollowell and Peter Jurkin — give Crean more depth than he’s ever enjoyed.
Related: Q and A with Indiana's Cody Zeller
No player appreciated Indiana’s turnaround more than Hulls, who grew up in Bloomington and suffered through two difficult seasons. His role changed last season as Victor Oladipo became more of a ball-handler who attacked high ball screens set by Zeller and Watford.
Oladipo is the team’s best athlete, capable of getting to the rim on anybody. He is also a ferocious defender.
As Oladipo evolved into a co-point guard, Hulls found ways to park himself on the wing and punish Big Ten opponents. He led the Hoosiers with 72 made 3-point field goals, making 49.3 percent of his attempts.
Crean believes Hulls can do better with the arrival of freshman point guard Yogi Ferrell, a McDonald’s all-American who led Park Tudor High School to back-to-back Indiana Class 2A state titles.
“Jordan stands to gain as much as anybody from having a group of freshmen coming in that can help impact the game athletically, especially with the way Yogi passes the ball,” Crean says. “The key will be, ‘Can the two of them play together defensively.’”
Sophomore Remy Abell looked like Indiana’s most improved player during the summer, but he must prove he can consistently make the 15-footer. Sheehey can play short stretches in the backcourt, too.
After several years of what the Indiana players called “getting punked” by stronger and deeper Big Ten programs, Indiana pushed back last season. This season the Hoosiers should do some of the punking.
Zeller is a National Player of the Year candidate, a big man who never stops running. Watford is a 6-9 forward who made nearly 44 percent of his 3-pointers — and showed the maturity to defend and rebound late in the season. Big Ten coaches will tell you that Oladipo and Sheehey, the team’s two juniors, changed the program’s mindset. Hulls, Mr. Hoosier, knows what a Final Four — or national title — would mean to Bloomington and the state. The freshmen are talented, but playing time won’t be available to rookies the way it has been the last four seasons.
“There’s not a sense that any complacency has crept it,” Crean says. “We don’t have any guys who feel they’ve arrived at any point.”
Athlon College Basketball Countdown:
19. Notre Dame
15. San Diego State
14. North Carolina
11. NC State
10. Michigan State
8. Ohio State