In a multitude of ways, 2008-09 was a year to forget for fans of Indiana basketball. The raw results were absolutely atrocious - a 6-25 overall record, including a lone Big Ten victory and home losses to teams like Lipscomb. For a program with the history and luster of Indiana, it was almost an unfathomable season. Still, the attitude around the Hoosier program never seemed as foul as the basketball that was being played in Assembly Hall. Fans applauded the scrappy effort, even if that effort resulted in a turnover or foul. Solace was taken in the smallest victories, like putting a scare into frontrunning Michigan State at home. Hoosier Nation seemed willing to accept a season of losses in their hopes for a program reborn, as long as things were being done "the right way."
As Geeks, however, we're concerned primarily with the numbers, which were woeful. Indiana was, by Pomeroy rating, the worst BCS-conference team in the nation, even worse than winless-in-the-Big-East DePaul. It's honestly somewhat surprising, given the relative strength of the Big Ten last season, that Indiana even managed to pull off that victory over 10th-place Iowa. Even more surprisingly, the Hoosiers took Michigan to overtime (after a staggering second half collapse) and lost by 5 points or less in five other conference games. As bad as this team was, it was occasionally able to stay in the game against solid teams.
The Hoosiers were bad at both ends of the court, but we'll focus on the offense first. As you'd expect from a ridiculously inexperienced team, turnovers were a huge problem. In fact, only Arkansas-Pine Bluff and NJIT kept Indiana from the highest TO Rate in the nation - not exactly company that the Hoosiers would like to keep. As a bonus, when Indiana managed to get a shot off, they led the nation in getting their shots blocked. If we're looking for offensive positives... well, they were middling nationally in Offensive Rebounding and FT Rate, although they shot free throws poorly (65.5%), negating that positive. Bottom line, there's nowhere to go but up on the offensive end.
Defensively, Indiana definitely put in the effort, but the results were just not there. They were actually not awful in most defensive aspects, but struggled mightily with the most important factor - they let opponents shoot lights out. They gave up the 7th highest eFG% in the nation at 54.6%, and almost nothing else defensively can offset shooting like that. The IU defense had their moments early in the season, holding both Northwestern State and Cornell to an eFG below 40%, but they were no match for the surprisingly solid offenses populating the Big Ten in 2008-09.
Individually, the standouts were in the backcourt - Devan Dumes, Verdell Jones, and Matt Roth all had solid conference seasons considering the overall context. Jones and Roth were both freshmen that were widely regarded as not being ready for Big Ten play, yet both posted solid numbers in conference play (ORtg of 93 for Jones, 120 for Roth, both on shot diets north of 20%). Dumes was the unquestioned offensive leader for the team, as he posted an ORtg of 99 on a shot diet of 27% (when he wasn't busy throwing elbows). On a team that struggled so mightily, those are solid individual performances, especially for newcomers. Tom Pritchard also showed promise at times on the block. Although his conference numbers weren't notable, you got the impression that he belonged on the floor and should eventually become a productive post scorer, with his early season statistical stalemate against Luke Harangody as a glimpse.
Overall, the checklist for Tom Crean last season probably looked something like this (in order of importance):
- Field a team and don't go winless - check.
- Recruit, recruit, recruit - check.
- Give the fan base reason to believe that things will get better within 1-2 years - check.
No sane person expected Indiana to do anything on the court last season - the important thing was the future trajectory of the program. Crean cobbled together a 2008 recruiting class that produced three solid long-term contributors (Jones, Roth, and Pritchard), and followed it with a very nice 2009 class (three RSCI top 100 players and three 3-star recruits). Those nine players figure to form the core of the IU program for the next 3 seasons, and it seems like a talented enough group to bring the on-court results back to respectability before they're through. Could it happen as early as this winter? We'll delve into that question tomorrow.