So, I didn't exactly nail last year's prediction on the Hoosiers (I expected 10-8, Crean ended up winning the conference outright at 15-3). Sure, I could point out that technically Indiana finished 2nd in efficiency margin to Michigan State, but the fact of the matter is that I whiffed on this team. So, if you don't agree with this preview, just point to the fact that this is the same bozo that predicted 10-8 last year.
And frankly, I'd kind of like to do that, too, because this honestly feels like guessing. On the one hand, Indiana was Very Good last year and Very Good teams typically are still at least good the following season. But no team has lost more conference minutes from last season than Indiana (assuming Collin Hartman's knee injury keeps him out for the year). So, last year's performance is perhaps less relevant with respect to this year.
But the minutes that IU does return are extremely good minutes. That's because they include sophomores Thomas Bryant and OG Anunoby. Bryant made a ridiculous 68 percent of his 2s last year in Big Ten play, while paired an efficient supporting role on offense with excellent defense. That's what they did as freshmen—one expects even more from them as sophomores.
And of course, serial pants-adjuster Tom Crean is still the coach. For all his idiosyncrasies, there's no denying that Crean is one of the most gifted offensive minds in college basketball. In four of the past five seasons, the Hoosiers have fielded a top-10 offense nationally. From an Xs and Os standpoint, there are a lot of variations but the theme of IU's sets is that the real action does not start until after at least a couple of passes and some screening. Meaning, the defense is already in motion, already switching, hedging, helping before the Hoosiers have started the primary action. Here's an example of what I mean:
By the time Yogi Ferrell gets the ball back, the Maryland defense is scrambling. Ferrell has a clear driving lane, and plenty of passing options when the help defense inevitably shows up.
Of course, Ferrell made a great play to create the open 3. Does incoming transfer Josh Newkirk make that play? Does Robert Johnson make that play? James Blackmon, Jr.? Those players all have their strengths and weaknesses, but none of them figures to be as good at the point guard position as Ferrell was. Ferrell provided Crean an incredible luxury of a primary ballhandler who could create shots for others, make his own shots, and rarely make poor decisions.
A pessimist might argue that we should wait to see the offense without Ferrell before assuming this version will be just as formidable. But we already saw such an offense in action, in 2012, when the Hoosiers had the best offensive efficiency in Big Ten play with perennially inefficient Verdell Jones as floor general. Sure, the offense was augmented by a highly efficient underclassman big man, and a do-it-all athletic forward...but that also sounds a lot like this year's team.
The smart money is that Indiana offensive competence continues. However, one thing worth keeping an eye on is turnovers Even with Ferrell and a decidedly perimeter-oriented attack, the Hoosiers were dead last in turnover rate in conference play. With Ferrell gone, and those ballhandling duties falling to the less capable, plus the likely shift from a outside-shooting team to one with more of an interior focus, and it's not a hard case to make that the offense will be held back by a turnover problem.
Defensively, IU went from the 2nd worst defensive team in the Big Ten to the 3rd best. Yes, Anunoby is a great defensive player, but he was on the floor for just under 40 percent of conference minutes. I think a better explanation is Bryant—and that's not because he's an otherwordly, Anthony Davis-type defender. But he is tall, which is something the 2015 Hoosiers sorely lacked (which contributed to a conference-worst defensive two-point percentage). The tall guy is back, but it's worth noting that defensive performance can be a fickle thing, so you wouldn't be faulted for seeing some regression there.
Overall, I see similar math for this year's Hoosiers as last year's. The offense should be good—when it doesn't turn the ball over—and the defense should be somewhere around "average." That's probably enough to put Indiana in the thick of the conference title race.