Hoosier Nation, The Movement is almost here.
And guess what? The national sports media are aware of it, too.
The Sports Bank’s very own, David Kay ranked IU #1 in his 2012-13 preseason Top 25. ESPN’s Andy Katz and Myron Medcalf has Indiana slated as the No. 1 team in the nation heading into the 2012-13 season as well. Luke Winn of SI.com also slotted the Hoosiers as the cream of the crop in his crystal-ball list. Add NBC Sports’ CollegeBasketballTalk to the group. America has bought in.
From the (presumed) returns of Cody Zeller and Christian Watford to the dynamic incoming freshman class -- the kids refer to themselves as “The Movement” — there are plenty of reasons to like Indiana as a potential preseason No. 1 next year, especially given how surprisingly well the Hoosiers fared in 2011-12.
But are they ready to take the next step?
Indeed, the Hoosiers took a massive step forward in their return to prominence this season.
Coach Tom Crean arrived in Bloomington in 2008, inheriting a completely bare cupboard in the aftermath of the scandal surrounding former coach Kelvin Sampson. Crean’s Indiana team would suffer a self-imposed three-year probation and the loss of multiple scholarships. The Hoosiers, who returned two bench players from the previous year and enlisted nine freshmen, an IU baseball player and at times a student manager, won just six games in Crean’s initial campaign.
The sanctions, however, didn’t stop Crean from reeling in a top-10 recruiting class nationally the very next year, headlined by Christian Watford of Birmingham, Ala., Maurice Creek of Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia, and 2009 Indiana Mr. Basketball Jordan Hulls from nearby Bloomington High School South. All three players saw extensive action immediately in the 2009-10 season, and Creek led all freshmen in the nation in scoring during his half-season of play, notching 16.4 points per game and netting 31 against No. 4 Kentucky — the John Wall/DeMarcus Cousins squad — in December 2009. However, Creek would injure his knee later that month and miss the remainder of the season, and to this day he hasn’t been able to shake injury woes. He hasn’t played since early 2011.
The Hoosiers won only 10 games that year, and things didn’t get much better in 2010-11. While Indiana managed to knock off top-25 teams for the first time under Crean — the Hoosiers beat ranked Illinois and Minnesota for two of their three Big Ten victories — the squad won just 12 games in all, leading some in the Hoosier Nation to question whether the program was making the necessary progress under Crean.
Oh, what a difference a year makes — well, that and a McDonald’s All-American recruit.
Prior to the beginning of the 2010-11 season, Cody Zeller, a 6-foot-11 forward from Washington, Ind. and one of the most coveted high-school players in the nation, committed to Indiana, energizing a fan base and creating a domino effect of top in-state commitments to the Hoosiers (more on that below). From the moment he announced for the cream and crimson, Zeller was viewed by many as the savior of Indiana University basketball, though it wasn’t clear at first how fair that designation was.
Yeah … pretty fair.
Zeller was a game-changer right off the bat for the Hoosiers in 2011-12. He led the team with 15.6 points per game and was the most efficient field-goal shooter of any player in the Big Ten, hitting shots at a 62.3-percent clip. Zeller also stole 49 balls — tying a team-high on the year — and ran the floor marvelously for a big man, leading several fast breaks.
Watford continued to grow as a go-to guy for Indiana, particularly on the defensive end, and the Hoosiers enjoyed a huge jump in productivity from sophomore guards Will Sheehey and Victor Oladipo; both guys showed a grit and willingness to defend on the perimeter in a manner Crean hadn’t been used to seeing during his trying first three years in Bloomington.
The Hoosiers enjoyed a perfect non-conference portion of their season, including a thrilling, exclamatory home victory against No. 1 Kentucky in December that in many ways signaled Indiana’s return from the depths of the Sampson-induced abyss to national relevance. The Hoosiers limited Kentucky’s Terrence Jones to four points and minimized the presence of Anthony Davis, who would later become the AP Player of the Year, by getting the freshman in early foul trouble and halting his scoring total at six. Even so, the Wildcats found themselves with a 72-70 lead late, and on a desperate final drive, senior guard Verdell Jones III halted in penetration and dished the ball back out to Watford on the perimeter, and then…
Chaos. Euphoria. A scene unlike Assembly Hall had seen in its countless decades of existence. Watford’s shot had gone in, and Indiana had upended the nation’s No. 1 team and returned, both to the polls and to its traditional status in college basketball.
Despite the same old road-game issues surfacing in the Big Ten schedule — Indiana suffered bad conference losses at Nebraska and Iowa in addition to more prominent Big Ten foes — the Hoosiers finished fifth in the Big Ten, leading the conference in total offense, ranking among the best in the nation in 3-point shooting and notching wins against then-No. 2 Ohio State and then-No. 5 Michigan State as highlights. The Hoosiers earned a No. 4 seed in their first NCAA tournament under Crean and overcame 22 turnovers against Virginia Commonwealth’s stifling full-court press in the second round to advance to the Sweet 16, where they bowed out in a rematch with eventual national champion Kentucky.
So there once again is an aura about Indiana basketball — to a degree that analysts are ready to put the Hoosiers back in the mix for the national championship. And why not? Let’s look at some key factors to a potential title run for Indiana in 2012-13:
- Returning Zeller and Watford. Honestly, I’d be surprised if either player declared for the NBA Draft — Watford much more so than Zeller. I could see Zeller getting drafted relatively early in the first round were he to come out this year (though he has plenty to gain by returning to school for one more season), but I doubt there’s any real pro interest in Watford at all at this juncture. That can change if he comes back for his senior season. He has the chance to become an All-Big Ten player and lead the Hoosiers deep in the NCAA tournament, potentially to a Final Four, and scouts will take note. For now, though, his lateral quickness isn’t ideal for a NBA swingman, and it’s hard to see him cracking the first round — or maybe the draft, period — if he comes out now, and I don’t think he will. Indiana will have its two biggest impact players back next season.
- Continued productivity from “Sheeladipo”: In many ways, Crean’s 2010 recruiting class of Sheehey and Oladipo has outperformed his top-10 class from 2009 — Watford and Hulls are the only two guys from that initial group to have developed into consistent playmakers for a sustained period of time. The two ’1o guards have become key cogs in the lineup, both starting down the stretch instead of one subbing for the other as the two did initially. Their games are a bit different, though. Sheehey has a more polished jump shot and is a threat any time he is open from beyond the arc. Oladipo is more of a driver to the basket, but with his length and athleticism, he can become deadly if he develops a jump shot of his own.
- Hulls accepting a lesser role. Jordan Hulls is a great, great shooter. No one can deny that. However, his struggles against VCU in the second round of the NCAA tournament exposed to a larger audience what some already had feared about his game: he can be a liability on defense and as a ball-handler due to his small size and unspectacular athleticism. He turned the ball over five times in that contest and struggled mightily late. With McDonald’s All-American point guard Kevin “Yogi” Ferrell entering the fold next year, Hulls inevitably will see his role on the team diminish, and as a senior, no less. That doesn’t necessarily mean he won’t start, but his minutes will decrease with so much talent both already in the stable and on the way. Knowing Hulls the person, I tend to believe he’ll take whatever job he’s given and do it well while still competing to keep his minutes. It’s up to Crean to figure out how best to keep Hulls a lethal weapon from 3-point land when he isn’t on the ball as often.
- What kind of impact “The Movement” will have: This is the class Hoosier Nation has been waiting for. The sky really is the limit with this group. Ferrell, the class’ headliner, is one of the most gifted point-guard prospects in the country, and his speed and playmaking ability were on display in the McDonald’s All-American Game just over a week ago. He recorded eight assists for the West squad — a sensational job distributing on the heels of his 17-point, 12-assist performance in leading Park Tudor High School to the Indiana Class 2A State Championship. Ferrell could start immediately for the Hoosiers; he’s sure to eliminate much of the stand-still offense we sometimes see with Indiana. Two freshmen you can expect to see come off the bench regularly in rotations are Hanner Mosquera-Perea, a freak of an athlete at 6-foot-9 who is raw but dangerous underneath the basket, and Jeremy Hollowell, a 6-foot-7 swingman who compares favorably to Watford and actually is more athletically gifted than his rising senior counterpart. Guard Ron Patterson might not crack the rotation his first year, but it wouldn’t shock me if he did. He’s an underrated player who defends well on the wing. Center Peter Jurkin will need a year of conditioning and may spend a year at prep school before being ready to contribute. Rest assured, though, Indiana will get plenty from “The Movement” right off the bat.
The Hoosiers will be deep next year; that’s for sure. Can they handle being a potential preseason No. 1?