Hoosiers face daunting challenge to defend Big Ten crown
From the outside, it may look like the Indiana Hoosiers are rebuilding again.
Three of last season's top five scorers, including record-breaking point guard Kevin ''Yogi'' Ferrell, are gone and the only senior on the roster, forward Collin Hartman, is out indefinitely after knee surgery in September.
Inside the newly renovated and renamed Simon Skjdot Assembly Hall, coaches and players see things differently. They believe there's enough talent still around to give the defending Big Ten champions a shot at a second straight conference crown.
''Everybody's eager to learn, eager to get things right. We want to get things right and compete at a high level,'' sophomore center Thomas Bryant said. ''The athleticism has gotten better as well with this team, and everybody is just eager to get out there and play.''
Certainly, there is work to do.
But coach Tom Crean has dealt with far worse. And this time, Crean begins with a stronger foundation.
When the 6-foot-10 Bryant bypassed the NBA draft, the Hoosiers were given a talented and energetic inside presence. Sharp-shooting guard James Blackmon Jr. also returns after missing the second half of last season because of knee surgery. Versatile guard Robert Johnson appears ready to fill the leadership void left by Ferrell's departure and sophomore forwards OG Anunoby and Juwan Morgan are expected to progress after showing so much promise last season.
Plus, the Hoosiers are deep. Guard Josh Newkirk is ready after transferring from Pittsburgh, junior college transfer Freddie McSwain Jr. could be an immediate contributor and the incoming freshmen are lead forwards De'Ron Davis and Curtis Jones.
Indiana believes that should be enough to finish the job. All they have to do now is prove it.
''Older teams have a hard time understanding how important it is to communicate with each other. Young teams really have no idea,'' Crean said. ''Even though we have some experienced guys, they are now going to have to be those experienced guys in the realm of taking real control of the team.''
Here are some other things to watch this season:
FIND THE POINT
It's never easy to replace someone like Ferrell, a four-year starter who played on two Sweet 16 teams and is the Hoosiers' career assists leader. And it may take more than one player to do it. Johnson and Newkirk are likely to get the bulk of the early work, but they are different kinds of floor leaders from Ferrell. Expect Crean to do some mixing and matching early in the season to see what he has at that position.
In addition to Hartman , Morgan (shoulder surgery) and McSwain (knee surgery) were not cleared to practice when fall workouts began. Johnson's offseason ankle surgery limited his early workouts. Blackmon, meanwhile, insists he's healthy.
''I don't just feel like I'm back, I feel like I'm better than I was,'' he said. ''And I feel like I'll be able to show that this season.''
At Big Ten media day, Crean joked that this season's non-conference slate was the result of poor scheduling. Kidding aside, the Hoosiers do have a remarkably difficult November and December. They open the season Nov. 11 against Kansas, host North Carolina on Nov. 30 and play Butler (Dec. 17) and Louisville (Dec. 31) in Indianapolis. The good news: Indiana should know how good it really is when league play begins.
THE REASSMEBLY LINE
Almost 20 months after construction began on the Hoosiers' home court, they will christen the renovated arena Nov. 16 against UMass-Lowell. What can fans expect? A new three-story entryway with a grand staircase, which doubles as a kind of Indiana museum full of iconic mementoes, new seats, repainted floors, more easily accessible concession stands and, of course, the new name.
AP college basketball website: http://collegebasketball.ap.org/