BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- As Indiana coach Tom Crean began his team's practice in Assembly Hall early last week, he issued a stern warning to the players arrayed before him. "There are two hundred minutes in a game, and there are a lot of guys here," he said. "So if you want to play, you better make yourself indispensible." The numbers crunch was a stark indicator of how far the program has come. When Crean began his first practice here four years ago, the Hoosiers had exactly one scholarship player. And he was a former walk-on.
That contrast, however, only speaks to recent history. The program's more distant past literally hovered over Crean like a specter. Five NCAA championship banners dangled above and behind him from the rafters of Assembly Hall. When Crean told his players that "you're not practicing bad, but we're not trying to be not bad," he could have pointed behind him and said, "That's what we're trying to be." But he didn't have to. This is Indiana, after all. Nobody needs to be reminded how the standard hangs.
For the first time since Crean left Marquette to pick up the pieces from the wreckage of Kelvin Sampson's demise here, he will be coaching a team that has the potential to fulfill that heritage. Last season, the Hoosiers were a nice, plucky little team. During the regular season, they defeated three top-five teams (all at home) en route to a fifth-place finish in the Big Ten. During the NCAA tournament, they lost in the Sweet Sixteen, but not before giving Kentucky its toughest battle during its championship run.
Now, Indiana has returned four starters from that unit, including national player of the year favorite Cody Zeller, and Crean has added a consensus top-five recruiting class. That's why the Hoosiers are starting the season as the No. 1-ranked team in the preseason coaches' poll and AP poll. That doesn't guarantee a title, of course, but given where the program was just a few years ago, the Hoosiers have every right to enjoy the view.
Do they really deserve to be a consensus preseason national favorite? After watching them practice for two days, my answer is, unequivocally, yes. I had a great vantage point to assess Indiana because in the days before my visit, I had watched Ohio State, which is ranked fourth in the preseason coaches poll, and Louisville, which is second. Indiana is better than both. The Hoosiers are deeper than Ohio State and have far more size and talent in the frontcourt. They are a better shooting team Louisville and are more fundamentally sound. I'm not saying Indiana is light years ahead of the field, but it is ahead, and barring any major injuries there's no reason to believe it won't stay there.
The main reason I am so bullish is that it appears Crean has shored up his team's two main deficiencies from last season. The first was point guard play. That might sound odd considering the Hoosiers led the Big Ten in scoring (77.3 ppg) and were ranked fourth in the country in offensive efficiency, according to Kenpom.com. But the Hoosiers were also 108th in tempo, and even though they were second in the country in three-point shooting, they were 294th in the percentage of attempts that came from behind the arc. So even while they were putting tons of points on the baord, most of them were of the hard-earned variety.
That has changed with the arrival of Kevin "Yogi" Ferrell, a speedy, wily freshman point guard who proves that big things can indeed come in small packages. Ferrell stands just 5-foot-11, and after watching him play a little bit in AAU tournaments, I was curious to see how he would look in a college setting. He was much, much better than I anticipated. He may be short, but he is also strong; he looks like he could play free safety for Indiana's football team. Ferrell also demonstrated a great feel for the position. During the two practices I watched, he was by far the quickest cat on the floor, but he was never out of control and he almost always made the right decision. And he shot the ball real, real well, which was supposed to be his biggest weakness.
Ferrell will allow senior guard Jordan Hulls to move off the ball, where his 49.3 percent three-point shooting clip will be even more lethal. And Ferrell will get lots of easy transition buckets for Zeller, who runs the floor better than any big man in America. I wouldn't be surprised to see Indiana average over 80 points per game this season.
Indiana's other deficiency last season was defense. The Hoosiers were ranked 64th in the country in defensive efficiency, and in the Big Ten they were fifth in field goal percentage defense and eighth in steals. Here, too, the freshmen will help. Ferrell is terrific on the ball, and 6-8 forward Hanner Mosquera-Perea is a freak athlete who will protect the rim. However, in order to upgrade the D, the Hoosiers will have to change their mentality.
That's where Crean comes in. Remember, he learned his trade under Tom Izzo at Michigan State. He knows how to teach toughness. That was Crean's primary emphasis during the two practices I watched. Most every drill was centered around rebounding, taking charges and breeding a fighter's mentality. That included drills where players wore boxing sparring gloves while the coaches slammed them with football pads. At one point, when Zeller and 6-5 junior Victor Oladipo were tied up on the floor for a loose ball, Crean barked, "Let em go!" The two of them wrestled for a good 10 seconds while the rest of the players stood and watched. Finally, Zeller flipped Oladipo over, wrested the ball away from him, and play resumed.
Crean is fun to watch during practice. He is the same guy you see pacing the sidelines and clapping during entire games. Some of that energy is owed to the three-plus cups of coffee he drinks a day (I'm trying to convert him to green juice), but most of it is innate. Crean is tough on his guys, but most of his teaching is positive. As the players started to drag toward the end of the first practice, Crean went into his barking and clapping routine and singlehandedly picked up the energy in the building. "Build the intensity back up!" he shouted. "Your attitude is great. Now build that up!"
Crean's mantra with his players and assistants centers on personal growth. In this respect, he also takes the lead. Crean is a devout Christian who often tweets inspirational phrases from the Bible. Last year, he gave up profanity. He is also the most voracious reader of any coach I know -- heck, of any person I know. Not only does Crean devour books (especially coaching and leadership books), but every day he pores over a thick booklet of newspaper stories from around the country, looking for any little nugget he can pass along to his players. "It's all about keeping it fresh," he told me.
There is a sense of urgency in Bloomington because there's a very good chance that besides the three seniors, the team will also lose Zeller to the NBA next spring. But regardless of what happens this season, there is no question that Crean has built a foundation for sustained success. This team's depth will produce internal competition, which in turn will foment the toughness that is, to use Crean's word, indispensible in any team's quest for a championship. Very few programs can boast of having won five NCAA titles, but this team doesn't need to worry about the enormity of that legacy. There's plenty of room in those rafters for one more banner.
Herewith, my breakdown of the Indiana Hoosiers:
Heart and soul: Zeller. As good as Zeller was last season, when he led the team in scoring, rebounding and steals and was ranked first in the Big Ten in field goal percentage, you can expect a big jump in his sophomore year. A full year of strength work has beefed up his lanky frame, and he spent most of his off-season improving his perimeter skills. Crean even put Zeller in charge of initiating the offense off the dribble from halfcourt, and he frequently chastised Zeller for neglecting to drive by his defender. Though Zeller did not attempt a three-pointer last season, he is capable of making them, and I expect he'll loft a few this year if only to keep defenses honest.
The one thing Zeller needs to improve on is his vocal presence. He is still too much of a lead-by-example type, but Crean is helping him develop his voice by forcing him to use it in practice. Communication is a huge point of emphasis in this program. Zeller needs to emphasize it more.
Most improved:Will Sheehey, 6-7 junior forward. Sheehey battled through an ankle injury he sustained at the start of Big Ten play last season. He's healthy now and his shot is looking much better, largely because he is a gym rat's gym rat. "He doesn't take a day off," Crean told me. Sheehey's size and shooting ability will help space the floor, which in turn will create more driving lanes for Yogi Ferrell. But it's Sheehey's defensive versatility that will prove to be truly valuable for this team. He can guard all five positions, and more important, he likes doing it.
Glue guy: Victor Oladipo, 6-5 junior guard. When you talk to other coaches around the Big Ten, they often cite Oladipo as the Indiana player they would most like to have. He is strong, he's a great athlete, and his motor always burns hot. He's also a terrific leader. At one point during practice, the action stopped so Oladipo could explain to sophomore guard Remy Abell what was going on. Crean compares Oladipo's strength and athleticism to Russell Westbrook's, and he has been pressing Oladipo to improve his offensive game. Last season, Oladipo averaged 10.8 points but made only 10 three-pointers. I don't know if Oladipo has a future in the NBA, but if he starts draining long-range shots, Indiana will a be much, much tougher to beat.
X-factor: Ferrell. Yes, I was impressed, but we must always add the caveat that Yogi is a freshman. He has a lot to learn and is being handed a great deal of responsibility. The good news is that Hulls and Oladipo have a lot of experience playing point guard, so Ferrell will not have to carry the load by himself. Still, the difference between Indiana being a really good team or a truly great one will hinge on whether this little man is up to the tall task at hand.
Lost in the shuffle: Derek Elston, 6-9 senior forward. Don't get me wrong -- Elston is going to play. But as long as everyone is healthy, I don't envision him as being more than a spot rotation player, which is not optimal for a senior. Zeller and 6-9 senior Christian Watford are this team's two most talented players, and if Crean is really intent on making this a great rebounding and interior defensive team, he's going to have to give lots of playing time to Mosquera-Perea. It will be up to Elston -- and everyone else on this team -- to find a way to make themselves indispensible.
Bottom line: It requires lots of luck for any team to win six games in the NCAA tourament. (Avoiding injuries is a big part of that. Just ask North Carolina.) Yet, I would argue that Indiana is the only team in the country that begins the season without a single glaring weakness. With this group, you can check every box: Point guard, shooting, size, experience, fundamentals, depth, toughness, coaching. The only question is whether the Hoosiers also have a little bit of March Magic. Only the basketball gods know for sure, but that doesn't mean we mortals can't hazard an educated guess. Therefore, until further notice, it says here that the Indiana Hoosiers will be your 2013 NCAA champions. Let the games begin.