“Predictions on lineups will be just that — predictions,” he said after IU’s 82-54 exhibition win against Ottawa.
IU started senior point guard Yogi Ferrell, sophomore guard James Blackmon Jr., junior wing Troy Williams, senior forward Max Bielfeldt and freshman center Thomas Bryant in that game.
Sophomore guard Robert Johnson, who started 33 times last season, and senior guard Nick Zeisloft, a five-game starter a year ago, came off the bench against the Gee-Gees. Williams slid from his undersized power forward position that he occupied as a sophomore to the three-spot in the lineup.
The Hoosier starting five had the best plus-minus of any combination that saw the floor against Ottawa, but that doesn’t mean it is a permanent fixture. Only Ferrell has locked up a starting spot, Crean said.
“We don’t really have a starting lineup right now,” he said. “It’s really irrelevant. Combinations are relevant. Who plays well with who is relevant. Who finishes is extremely relevant. That, to me, is going to be key.”
IU has “tremendous” competition for its guard spots, and all of the team’s forwards will play, Crean said.
Crean isn’t one to get too specific with labeling players by position.
The Hoosiers strive to follow the doctrine of positionless basketball, a movement popularized by the Golden State Warriors in the NBA last season.
Positionless basketball is attainable through a talented and deep roster with diverse skill sets among its players, where they become interchangeable on the court due to their versatility. They aren’t limited to playing and defending just one position on the floor.
“Our guards, we can interchange,” Blackmon Jr. said after the Ottawa game. “Me and Yogi switched off so many times tonight.”
In Crean’s eyes, this brand of basketball requires playing out to — and at times, beyond — the 3-point line on both ends of the floor, spreading the floor with shooters who can also handle the ball, being versatile defensively and making adjustments inside the game.
“That’s all part of playing positionless basketball to me,” he said.
The next step is improving on defense, which has been a focus area since last season.
“If we can get to a point where we can guard different positions, then that really leads you to another place offensively, and I hope we can get there,” Crean said.
Much of the emphasis on defensive versatility falls on the shoulders of Bryant — a 6-foot-10 center with a 7-foot-6 wingspan — who fills the role of a much-needed rim protector while also being able to contest shots on the perimeter.
“That’s invaluable for him because he’s going to have to guard numerous people for us,” Crean said. “Sometimes it will be a post man. In this league and in this non-conference schedule, you’re going to see a lot of multi-dimensional forwards you’ll face.”
Bryant played 23 minutes against Ottawa as IU’s coaching staff managed the minutes of the team’s freshmen. In total, 13 Hoosiers saw action against the Gee-Gees, and nine played at least 10 minutes.
At Big Ten Media Day in mid-October, Crean emphasized his desire to develop a roster that has multiple options at every spot on the floor.
“We would want to have a true two-deep,” Crean said. “(Where) we’re two-deep at every position.”
To him, being two-deep means the players know there’s always someone else competing for the same position and playing time, which creates a heightened sense of competition. Crean said IU isn’t there yet, but it’s a goal the team is working toward.
If the Hoosiers can accomplish the elusive concepts of playing positionless basketball and becoming a two-deep team, it will only improve Crean’s arsenal of lineup combinations.
IU could “go big” with the Bielfeldt-Bryant frontcourt combination in an effort to combat a Purdue frontline that has 7-foot A.J. Hammons, 7-foot-2 Isaac Haas and 6-foot-9 Caleb Swanigan at its disposal.
Or, if the Hoosiers want to play small ball to spread the floor with shooters, Williams could play the four-spot alongside a three-guard lineup of Ferrell, Blackmon Jr. and Johnson — IU’s most common lineup, one through four, at the end of last season.
However, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Hoosiers play three-guard lineups less frequently this season.
“Being married to the three guards all year long, I’m not married to that lineup at all,” Crean said. “I’m married to Joani, not that lineup.”
Crean defines a point guard in IU’s offensive system as the player who throws the ball ahead the best after the opponent scores a basket.
When the Hoosiers play a positionless style of basketball, they don’t have a true point guard once the ball gets down the court, Crean said.
“Other than that, it’s really moving,” he said. “It’s free flowing with the exception when we want a matchup.”
Game-by-game matchups will determine the composition of the team’s starting lineup and rotation. IU has 11 eligible scholarship players plus walk-ons, and each one is a piece — some larger than others — to the Hoosiers’ puzzle.
“It’s really a matter of mixing and matching, and getting guys comfortable,” Crean said.
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