Tom Crean’s team sits in a similar position to last season: Few will pick Indiana to win the Big Ten regular season, but few should be surprised if the Hoosiers deliver. After starting slowly, Indiana finished with gusto, winning the Big Ten by two games and then knocking Kentucky out of the NCAA Tournament on the way to the Sweet Sixteen. The Hoosiers are capable of that type of run — and more — in 2017.
Even without four-year starter Yogi Ferrell at point guard, Crean has five talented options in the backcourt, with the initial focus on Josh Newkirk, a transfer from Pittsburgh, and junior James Blackmon Jr., who is returning from his third knee surgery. Thomas Bryant has the rugged, versatile game to become the Big Ten’s best center, and Crean is confident that two other sophomores — OG Anunoby and Juwan Morgan — will develop into top-tier Big Ten winners.
All Big Ten predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2016-17 Preview Magazine, available in our online store and on newsstands everywhere.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Tom Crean
2015-16 RECORD (BIG TEN): 27–8 (15–3)
2015-16 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to North Carolina 101–86 in the Sweet 16
2016-17 PREDICTION: Third in the Big Ten
F Max Bielfeldt (8.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg)
G Yogi Ferrell (17.3 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 5.6 apg)
F Troy Williams (13.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 2.0 apg)
G Nick Zeisloft (6.5 ppg, 1.6 rpg)
Bryant shocked many by not considering a jump to the NBA, even though he was discussed as a late first-round selection. After leading the Big Ten in field goal percentage, Bryant has set goals of improving his shooting range and becoming a better rebounder and defender. De’Ron Davis, a freshman, will be Bryant’s backup as well as a power forward.
Anunoby projects as one of the most fascinating players in the nation. Although he ranked ninth on IU in scoring and did not start a game, Anunoby is seen as a first-round pick on several 2017 NBA mock drafts because he contributed 26 blocks and 27 steals while averaging less than 14 minutes per game. He’s also a 45 percent 3-point shooter and a powerful finisher.
Morgan had offseason surgery to fix an uncooperative left shoulder that popped out of place in all three of Indiana’s NCAA Tournament games. Crean says he considers a healthy Morgan as valuable as an elite recruit and plans to use him on the block and the perimeter, where he made 5-of-11 3-point shots.
Collin Hartman, a senior, was the least acclaimed member of IU’s six-player 2013 recruiting class. He is also the only one remaining from that group, a classic glue guy who plays like a coach on the court. Hartman played the final three games with a broken bone in his shooting (right) arm. He is capable of playing either forward spot or off guard.
The mystery man is Freddie McSwain, a transfer from Neosho County (Kan.) Community College. Primarily a football player in high school, McSwain will arrive as the team’s top athlete but also a guy who needs time with the coach IU players call “The Shot Doctor,” assistant Tim Buckley.
Replacing Ferrell will require a group effort, and Crean has what the coaching staff considers the most competitive mix of five players the coach has collected in Bloomington. Newkirk practiced with the Hoosiers last winter after transferring from Pittsburgh. He’s skilled in the open court and as a defender, but there are questions about his ability to score off the pick-and-roll as well as with his 38 percent shooting in 2014-15.
Crean does not need Newkirk to focus on 3-point shooting, though. Blackmon and fellow junior Robert Johnson can do that. Both made better than 44 percent of their attempts last season, with Blackmon averaging nearly 16 points per game before suffering a knee injury in December. For Blackmon, the job will be defensive improvement, while Johnson must reduce his turnovers.
Three recruits provide depth. Curtis Jones is a former high school teammate of Bryant. He’s a 3-point shooter who needs strength. Devonte Green is another solid shooter and the younger brother of NBA guard Danny Green. Grant Gelon projects as a situational shooter who is likely two seasons away from contributing.
For the first time in five seasons, Tom Crean did not land a McDonald’s All-American, but the class fits multiple needs. De’Ron Davis won two Colorado state titles and has the inside-outside skills to play across the frontcourt. Guards Curtis Jones and Devonte Green should fit perfectly in Indiana’s 3-point attack, but one must develop as a point guard. Freddie McSwain’s athleticism has been compared to Victor Oladipo’s. Grant Gelon is a project.
The pieces are here for the Hoosiers to challenge in the Big Ten. Bryant is a mature sophomore whose love of college basketball and the chance to play in another NCAA Tournament helped bring him back to IU. Blackmon could lead the Big Ten in scoring. Anunoby and Morgan are large, versatile players who helped drive Indiana’s defensive improvement last season.
Replacing Ferrell and the unpredictable Troy Williams will require adjustments. The Hoosiers must continue to embrace the commitment to defense they showed during conference play while also reducing turnovers.