Warning: this post starts on the soapbox. If you would rather not read that—and I don't blame you—here's a jump to the part when I start talking about actual basketball.
I had planned to write about Indiana last—finishing with Rutgers seems like such a letdown (spoiler alert: they’re not going to have a good season). But Indiana is always entertaining, mostly because it’s a great program that nonetheless has some extremely low points. In 2007-08 for example, the Hoosiers started the season 17-1, all shortly before the wheels came off in the wake of the Kelvin Sampson phone call scandal. The team went 8-7 the rest of the way, during which time Sampson was fired. But that hardly describes it—I have this vague memory of A.J. Ratliff making guest appearances on a local radio show to basically gossip about the team (is that right?). Ratliff was one of the better players from the year prior, but never played in 2007-08. At first he was ineligible, then he left the team for “personal reasons.” And that wasn’t the only piece of drama for team during that time—more on that in a bit.
It’s one thing for a team to implode, but IU’s 2008 implosion was spectacular. This was a team that probably should have been something like a 3-seed, but ended the year by losing to Penn State, getting Hoff’ed in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, and then was thoroughly outclassed by a pretty average Arkansas team in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Sampson failed his team on and off the court, so it did not come as a surprise that the Hoosier faithful loved the next coach, whose name was Not Kelvin Samps...er, his name was Tom Crean.
Crean’s arrival seemed to be more about paying respects to the program itself rather than talk about Crean’s résumé. Which is fine, I guess. Fans I’m sure were getting restless—the team has only gotten to the Sweet 16 three times over the past 18 seasons, and has gotten past that stage just once. IU ruled the Big Ten during Knight’s heyday, and I’m sure at times it did seem as easy as behaving off the court, and listening to the General about driving the paint.
Which leads me to today. Yesterday, Crean announced suspensions for Troy Williams and Stanford Robinson for failing offseason drug tests, and for freshman Emmitt Holt for his role in the Devin Davis accident. I fall into the camp that finds these suspensions a little uncomfortable, but not for the reasons that Dan Dakich or Gregg Doyel do. Dakich is a phenomenal color guy who has a lot of insights to offer about what happens on the court, but I just can’t with this take. Dakich’s ire is focused on the players, who of course are 18 and 19 year olds who, in my humble estimation, are fitting right in with their colleagues. Do 18 and 19 year olds, away at college, drink? Of course they do. Do they use drugs sometimes? Of course they do. Does that make them terrible people, or indicate that they “don’t stand for anything?” Absolutely not.
Dakich is well within his right to complain that he’s “tired of hearing boys will be boys,” which only serves to remind us that he’s a 52-year old who grew out of such things a long time ago. I don’t mean that as a slight—complaining about kids is a longstanding tradition that goes back to the Roman Empire. But as #HotSportsTakes go, the “these daggum kids” is one whose popularity will never stop being a mystery to me. Then there’s also the issue that when Dakich was last seen roaming the sidelines for Indiana, the program had plenty of off-court issues as well.
As for Gregg Doyel, he thinks Tom Crean should be fired, because the team is failing off the court. As far as I can tell though, these off-court incidents all have no victims, or the victim was actually at fault (and here’s my first problem with the suspension—why is Devin Davis not suspended? Is it because he’s hurt, and that’s seen as punishment enough? I’m not opposed to that view, but it seems like something that should be addressed. Davis was, after all, also underage and also drinking that night. Apologies if I missed it.). And I do think that’s an important distinction. I think the case against Brian Kelly or Steve Alford is a lot stronger. Off field/court stuff matters, but not all to the same degree.
Let me be clear—the players made mistakes, and some form of punishment is appropriate. But calls for Crean’s job, or a description of the program as out of control are off base. Ultimately, these transgressions do fall under the category of “college kids will be college kids.” Will there be a lot of lap running in the Hoosiers’ future? Of course, and I don’t blame the coaches for doling that kind of punishment out.
Nor do I blame Crean for conveniently stopping the suspensions short of Indiana’s matchup with SMU. The four covered games instead include two exhibitions and two games against low-major teams. Crean obviously knows these suspensions will not hurt his team’s chances this season, nor should they. The coach cannot credibly say that these players let their teammates down, if their teammates will not suffer any real consequences as a result. No, these suspensions are a bone to toss to the gathering mob at the gates.
As for why the mob is there in the first place, my hunch is that had Indiana won 25 games last year, the reaction today would be much different. Crean has won just 37 percent of his Big Ten games at Indiana, and even if you drop the first two seasons he’s won just 49 percent of his conference matchups. Last year’s team finished a disappointing 7-11 in the Big Ten, hampered by a lack of ballhandling and shooting ability. Yogi Ferrell was really the best—and sometimes only—option for both of those, and everyone knew it. Noah Vonleh was a great talent, but his best basketball is still well into the future.
Most of the offense therefore consisted at diving to the rim without much success:
Shot attempts at the rim
Field goal pct at the rim
As Dylan Burkhardt pointed out, Indiana’s offense was extremely one-dimensional last season. And bull-rushing to the rim did not just lead to a lot of misses in the paint, but also to a lot of turnovers, as the Hoosiers led the Big Ten in turnover percentage last year.
If this year’s team is going to improve, the first item on the agenda is to change the team’s offensive identity. The biggest reason for that figures to be freshman guard James Blackmon, who is my pick for Big Ten Freshman of the Year. In his final AAU summer, Blackmon led his team with over 19 points per game, shooting 48 percent on threes (50.0 3PA percentage), and he also assured that his shooting was no fluke by hitting 85 percent of his free throws. He also showed enough ballhandling skills to be at least a combo guard. I know Ohio State also has a couple of heralded freshmen, but Blackmon is definitely going to play a ton of minutes, so he’s my pick.
The backcourt therefore looks solid with Ferrell and Blackmon. Beyond that, it’s a lot of question marks. I expect freshman shooting guard Robert Johnson to play quite a bit. Although he put up a nice points per game average (16.7) in AAU, it wasn’t as efficient as you’d like to see (42 percent on 2s, 36 percent on 3s). IU also has two top-100 freshmen becoming sophomores in the suspended Williams and Robinson. Both were very reluctant jumpshooters last season:
Pct of Shots at Rim
Pct Shots 2P jumper
Pct Shots 3P
This isn’t to say that one cannot be successful with this kind of shot distribution (Le’Bryan Nash, Tarik Black, and Amile Jefferson—to name a few—all had even more of their shots dedicated to at-rim looks), though Robinson might be barking up the wrong tree. The list of successful players near his height that are so laser-focused on the rim includes Devin Brooks, and I guess Aaron Craft, though both guys were not very efficient in conference play.
(Robinson is fully aware that he needs to improve his shooting, and to that end he’s now shooting with his right hand. There is some precedent for this, but it’s not like Tristan Thompson has evolved into a much better shooter than when he shot left-handed.)
Overall though, I feel confident that Williams at least will show substantial improvement, and coupled with Blackmon, the team’s offense should take a step forward even with the loss of Vonleh. But defensively, there’s simply no making up this kind of gap. Vonleh was one of the best defenders in the country last season, and replacing his minutes will largely be junior Hanner Mosquera-Perea. Mosquera-Perea is certainly a big bodied player, and has shown a lot of similar skills as Vonleh (rebounding, propensity to get to the line, shotblocking), albeit in much smaller minutes. But it’s simply asking too much to expect him to replace Vonleh’s defensive impact. That said, Indiana potentially has another option in Devin Davis, who actually saw more time down the stretch last year than Mosquera-Perea. However, his injury from the off-court incident is certainly a setback.
Overall, I expect a better offense, a worse defense, and a date with the bubble for Tom Crean. If he’s able to sneak the Hoosiers into the Dance, I expect the volume on the off-court drama to come down dramatically. As it should.