Tom Crean's first few years in Bloomington were terrible, but he now has the Hoosiers in position to be annual contenders. (Joe Robbins/Getty)
What’s the difference between rebuilding and reloading? Tom Crean could probably tell you better than I could.
One took the Indiana head coach about five years. The other took a little more than five months.
Rebuilding is what Crean went through when he arrived in Bloomington in 2008, tasked with resurrecting a program that had been decimated in the wake of Kelvin Sampson. He inherited a team -- if you can call it that -- of two players that had averaged a whopping 1.6 points per game combined the year before. His first season at Indiana was the school’s worst since 1915. They went 1-17 in the Big Ten. They lost to Lipscomb and Northeastern. And they were forced to play freshmen, transfers, walk-ons, managers -- even baseball players.
They won a total of six games that year. The next two wouldn’t be any kinder.
It wasn’t until his fourth season that Crean’s Hoosiers finally started to play the brand of basketball synonymous with Indiana and its five championship banners. Since the start of 2011-12, IU has made back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances, been ranked No. 1 in the country, won a Big Ten regular-season title and had two players selected in the top four of the NBA draft.
That’s a long way from two players and 1.6 points per game. That’s a rebuilding job.
What Crean and the Hoosiers have done this season is reload. Rather than wallow in the pain of losing two lottery picks and two other senior starters in March, Crean lined up a slew of talented youngsters to replace the slew of talented players he lost.
Out goes Cody Zeller, in comes Noah Vonleh, a 6-foot-9, 245-pound freshman, who has registered a double-double in each of his first four games and might be the best first-year player in the country that isn’t getting the limelight treatment.
Out goes Victor Oladipo, in comes Troy Williams, a talented and versatile forward who is averaging 10 points and 5.5 rebounds and started all four games.
But there’s more. In total, five freshmen have played in all four of IU’s games, with Luke Fischer, Stanford Robinson and Devin Davis all showing flashes of promise. Even better, the holdovers from last year’s squad have done a lot more than combine 1.6 ppg.
Star-in-the-making Yogi Ferrell might be the best point guard in the Big Ten. The 6-foot sophomore dynamo has turned into IU’s rock this year, averaging 19.5 points, 4.5 assists, 4.3 rebounds and hitting 40.7 percent of his three-pointers.
Senior Will Sheehey, who won the conference’s Sixth Man of the Year award last season, has stepped into the starting lineup and possesses an intensity on both ends that makes him a natural leader and the Hoosiers’ best two-way player.
This year’s Indiana team isn’t anywhere close to the one that was pegged preseason No. 1 last fall -- they’re currently outside the AP Top 25 and sit No. 22 in the coaches poll -- but there’s no talk of “next year” in Bloomington either. There’s been upheaval for the Hoosiers, but, unlike 2008, the reinforcements are already here.
A 4-0 start has helped alleviate some concerns, but the team’s one-point win over LIU Brooklyn showed that this year’s team is going to experience a few speed bumps that last season’s squad evaded.
Most troubling right now is the team’s shooting (30.3 percent from deep) and its decision-making (IU has 63 turnovers to just 39 assists on the year). But those are kinks you are confident you can work out when you’re undefeated, averaging 92 points per game.
Those are the issues of a young team that’s reloading -- ones Crean will take any day over the problems he faced from rebuilding.
2K Sports Classic Preview
Indiana looks to continue its unbeaten start against Washington on Thursday night (9 p.m. ET) in the 2K Sports Classic benefitting the Wounded Warrior Project. The first game between No. 18 Connecticut and Boston College tips off at 7 p.m. Here’s a quick look at the other teams playing at Madison Square Garden in the two-day tourney:
No. 18 Connecticut (4-0)
The undefeated Huskies are powered by one of the most well-rounded players in the country in 6-foot-1 senior Shabazz Napier, who is averaging 13.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and 7.8 assists. UConn has a veteran squad that would give Indiana all it could handle in a potential title game. The Huskies also have one of the most talented three-guard trios in the country -- Napier, Ryan Boatright and Omar Calhoun -- but the Hoosiers would own a decisive advantage on the boards. IU ranks second in the nation in rebounds, while UConn is tied for 162.
Senior guard C.J. Wilcox (20.3 ppg) is capable of taking over a game, but the talent pool is shallow for Lorenzo Romar’s group, especially after projected starter Jernard Jarreau tore his ACL in the first game. Washington has five players that score in double-digits (and Shawn Kemp Jr.!), but a 14-point loss to UC Irvine last week showed this team has yet to mesh.
Boston College (1-3)