Bend your knees. Spread your arms. Move your feet. Guard your man.
There are fancier ways to analyze what matters for the Indiana Hoosiers this season, but nothing is more relevant than this simple truth: Tom Crean’s experienced Hoosiers must defend better than they defended last season if they intend to grow into more than a team that wobbles into one of the final NCAA Tournament spots.
The Hoosiers played top-10 offense, averaging 1.15 points per possession last season. They made 319 3-point attempts, shooting nearly 41 percent as a team. The Hoosiers played bottom-100 defense, allowing 1.07 points per possession as opponents shot a Big Ten-best 45.3 percent.
If the Hoosiers keep scoring as efficiently as they did last season and discover the value of defensive resolve, Indiana can be a top-15 team. If not? More grumbling at Assembly Hall.
All Big Ten predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2015-16 Preview Magazine, available online and on newsstands everywhere.
Podcast: Who should be No. 1 in College Basketball in 2015-16?
Thomas Bryant, a 6'10" center, is Indiana’s most important recruit since Cody Zeller four seasons ago. He’s a solid shot blocker with the bulk and mindset to control the rim. He also turned down Kentucky, Syracuse and Missouri because he recognized the void in the middle at IU, which used the departed Hanner Mosquera-Perea (no low-post game) and Collin Hartman (only 6'7") inside last season.
Troy Williams is determined to follow the Victor Oladipo growth chart at one forward position — from inconsistent freshman to dynamic sophomore to first-round draft pick as a junior. Williams led the Hoosiers in rebounding (7.4 rpg) while scoring 13.0 points per game. Improving those two numbers would be a plus, but not as much of a plus as cutting back on his turnovers and upgrading his defense. Spectacular in transition, Williams worked with John Lucas last summer on becoming a complete player.
Hartman can play anywhere from center to guard. Crean will employ him according to matchups and foul trouble. He protects the ball, makes threes (47.5 percent) and hits the floor.
Word is that sophomore Emmitt Holt is primed for a breakout year. He trailed on the learning curve after signing one week before classes started. But he showed the ability to block shots and finish. Holt has worked to develop his range to 10 feet and will be Bryant’s primary backup — along with Max Bielfeldt, a fifth-year transfer who averaged 5.1 points and 3.6 rebounds for Michigan last season.
No. 17 Indiana Hoosiers Facts & Figures
Last season: 20-14 (9-9 Big Ten)
Postseason: NCAA first round
Consecutive NCAAs: 1
Big Ten projection: 4
Postseason projection: NCAA second round
This is one of the five best backcourts in America if (you guessed it) they improve their commitment to defending, especially against dribble penetration.
Point guard Yogi Ferrell (16.3 ppg) and James Blackmon Jr. (15.7 ppg) both considered declaring for the 2015 NBA Draft but wisely realized they needed work.
Ferrell ranked in the league’s top 10 in scoring (sixth), assists (fourth), free throw percentage (second), 3-point percentage (sixth) and minutes (sixth). He is a legitimate Big Ten Player of the Year candidate because he can score from anywhere.
Blackmon is recovering from minor offseason knee surgery. He made 77 3-point shots and was Indiana’s second-leading rebounder. Improvement on his ball handling and defense will determine how quickly he’s NBA-bound.
Robert Johnson, a sophomore, had a difficult assignment playing between two guys who love to score, but he handled it well, contributing 8.9 points and finishing second on IU in assists. Nick Zeisloft, a fifth-year senior, can shoot with anybody, making 45 percent of his attempts from distance.
Key Losses: F Hanner Mosquera-Perea
Top Players: G Yogi Ferrell, G Robert Johnson, G James Blackmon, F Troy Williams, F/C Thomas Bryant
The Hoosiers had to find a center. Thomas Bryant’s late commitment gave the class the piece it needed. Bryant has a solid, mature body and was described as an outstanding teammate during summer drills. Bryant’s transition should be aided by Max Bielfeldt, who battled injuries at Michigan but became a solid contributor last season. Freshmen Juwan Morgan and Og Anunoby are athletic but will need time.
The Hoosiers allowed 88 points against Eastern Washington, 94 against Louisville, 91 against Georgetown and 92 against Wisconsin — all in defeats. Crean understands that the commitment to defense is non-negotiable. He hired a new strength and conditioning coach whose first request was to build a sand pit outside Assembly Hall, where the players worked on their lateral quickness and toughness.
Bryant and Holt can alter the defensive tone with their physical presence and willingness to challenge shots. Indiana must also improve on the boards.
But the heart of this team remains Ferrell, Williams and Blackmon. They have to score as efficiently as they did last season but prove that the other end of the court is where championships are won.