Tonight, the basketball season officially starts. All of you who have suffered silently through football season are now free to follow a team that has every opportunity available to it in the world. No longer do we have to talk about what we hope to see, or remind ourselves that they were only exhibition games. Given the beginning of the season, it’s hard to know what to expect from our opponent. To help correct that issue, I reached out to our colleagues over at The Crimson Quarry, the SB Nation site dedicated to covering the Indiana Hoosiers. David Rude was kind enough to answer a few questions for us:
RCT: Indiana won the Big Ten last year by 2 games, but lost in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament and then lost to 1 seed North Carolina in the Sweet 16. Was that in line with your expectations for that team, and how did that change your expectations for this year?
TCQ: Well, to be honest, the expectations of last year’s team changed multiple times throughout the season. Entering the year, we expected a team that could compete near the top of the Big Ten. After a meltdown in the Maui Invite that saw us lose 2 of 3 games then get blown out at Duke, the expectation was that Tom Crean wouldn’t make it through the year. Then the team transformed, hardened up defensively and became a well-oiled machine offensively and somehow ran away with the Big Ten title by multiple games. Then we doubled down and beat Kentucky, our biggest rival, in the NCAA Tournament. So while losing in the Sweet 16 wasn’t fun at the time, considering the long path we took to get there, I think most anyone would have taken it at the beginning of the season.
If anything, last season taught me to both temper my expectations early while also increasing my trust in Tom Crean. He took a team that looked NIT-worthy in Maui to a Big Ten title and the Sweet 16. Not only did he save his job (which should have never been in doubt), but he now has quite a bit of job security.
RCT: Speaking of the transition from one year to the next, what big changes did the Hoosiers see in the offseason? Who were the big departures/additions?
TCQ: The biggest loss from last year’s team is Yogi Ferrell. Ferrell was a starter from day one with the program, rode through the highs and lows and was the unquestioned leader of last year’s team. More than his production statistically, he leaves big shoes to fill as the leader of this team. The team also lost Troy Williams, who was inconsistent but an important part of the team as the second point guard at times.
The good news is the Hoosiers return a ton of talent. While he’s not technically an addition, James Blackmon Jr. is probably the biggest “addition” to the team. Last season, he went down late in non-conference play with a knee injury and never returned. At that point, he was one of our top scorers and best offensive players. If anyone is going to step up and take the bulk of the point production left by Ferrell and Williams, it’s him.
In terms of actual additions, Josh Newkirk, a transfer from Pittsburgh, sat out last season and very likely will step in as the starting point guard this season. He’s not necessarily the scorer that Ferrell was, but Ferrell was also one of the 10 best Hoosiers of all time. Freshman who could make a big impact for us would be De’Ron Davis, Devonte Green and Curtis Jones. However, injuries have slowed down some of them, so it remains to be seen how much they actually will play early in the season.
RCT: What are your expectations for this season for the Hoosiers?
TCQ: Expectations are pretty high for the Hoosiers this season, and that’s largely in part because we return OG Anunoby and Thomas Bryant. Both rank in the top 20 of Draft Express’ top prospects and both enter their sophomore years. Both showed tons of flashes of really, really good play last year mixed in with freshman mistakes. If they can temper out the mistakes, then IU is going to have a really good team.
More than just those two, though, the Hoosiers have a ton of depth and can legitimately go 10 deep. We have a ton of versatility and can match up with lots of styles, whether it be more of a small-ball approach or playing big with teams.
After winning a Big Ten title last year and arguably having as good as, if not a better roster this season, I’d say the expectations are a Big Ten title. More importantly, Tom Crean has not made it past the Sweet 16 with Indiana, and that’s where fans want to see progress this year. More than anything, the expectation (and hope) is a deep run in March.
RCT: The Selection Committee has always emphasized non-conference schedules in their process. The Hoosiers really only seem to have 4 “major” opponents in Kansas, North Carolina, Butler and Louisville. What are you thoughts on the schedule this year?
TCQ: The knock on Crean during his time in Bloomington has been scheduling, especially since the Kentucky-Indiana series has ended. While you say we “only” have four major opponents (and you’re right), we only had one non-conference game against a top 20 KenPom team (Duke) last year and we lost it embarrassingly badly.
So entering this year, we were a little excited that we’d have four big games this season. But the point still remains, this is a very soft schedule for a team like Indiana has this year. We have eight games against teams outside the top 250 in KenPom. So these four games are going to be huge for Indiana because they’re the only chances, outside of Big Ten play, that the Hoosiers are going to have to establish themselves nationally.
RCT: Indiana is ranked #16 in KenPom, and one of 5 Big Ten teams that are ranked in the top 20. How competitive do you see the Big Ten being this year?
TCQ: The Big Ten is really, for the most part, a four-horse race this year. Ohio State is somehow ranked 13th by KenPom, but they will drop incredibly quickly. It was perplexing when the rankings came out and, unless KenPom knows something everyone else doesn’t, the Buckeyes aren’t in the same league as the top four.
That leaves Michigan State, Wisconsin, Purdue and Indiana as the top four. Realistically, I could see an argument for just about any of those four teams winning the title this year. Tom Izzo is always terrifying to play against, Wisconsin is going to start four seniors and two All-Big Ten players this year and Purdue has as big a front line as anyone in the conference in Isaac Haas and Caleb Swanigan. I expect it to be similar to last season where four teams tied for third at 12-6, Iowa was 13-5 and IU was 15-3, though with even less separation at the top.
RCT: Let’s turn our attention to the game on Friday night. What do you see as the key matchups in the game?
TCQ: Well I can’t imagine a conversation about Kansas this season won’t revolve around Josh Jackson this year, but the Hoosiers have a (hopefully) great counter to him in OG Anunoby. I anticipate that being the must-see match-up of the night.
The likely more important match-up though is Frank Mason against whomever our point guard may be. Josh Newkirk or Robert Johnson could either be the ball-handler tomorrow and while the latter is one of the more unheralded players on the roster, both will have their hands full on the perimeter.
The match-up I can see the Hoosiers taking advantage of is down low where the Hoosiers have a lot of size, but more importantly a lot of depth. Thomas Bryant is a big handful down low and Juwan Morgan and De’Ron Davis both can come off the bench and provide quality minutes.
RCT: If you could take any player from the Kansas roster (other than maybe Josh Jackson since it’s so obvious), which one would it be?
TCQ: Can we pretty please have Josh Jackson? No? Fine. If not him, the player I’d take off the Jayhawks’ roster would probably be Frank Mason. The Hoosiers’ biggest hole is at point guard to start this year, and there are few PGs better than Mason in the country.
RCT: Prediction Time! What is your score prediction, and who is the leader scorer in the game?
TCQ: While I really, really want IU to win this game, I’m not sure about the Hoosiers this early in the season. Under Crean, we’re notoriously slow starters and we’ve certainly never played someone this good, this early in the season. Injuries have jostled the rotation a bit this summer and in the exhibition games. I think this will be a close contest, but I think KU squeaks it out, 79-75. I think Mason will be the leading scorer in the game while the Hoosiers will be led by Anunoby.
RCT: Bonus - Which would you prefer, a personal chef or a personal assistant?
TCQ: Well, I really have no need for a personal assistant, and I like eating, so it’s a simple choice. Personal chef.
A big thanks to David for helping us out (and giving us so much material to read). Don’t forget to check out the questions that I answered for him over at TCQ.