IU men’s basketball has seven starters. At least that’s how Tom Crean feels.
Before the game, Crean said on the radio he considers senior guard Nick Zeisloft and senior forward Max Bielfeldt to be starters. The thing is, they both come off the bench.
But both of them have experience starting games. Both can be counted on to come in and play major minutes and do it effectively. What Crean’s statement really portrays is just how good the bench has been for IU in Big Ten play.
At Big Ten Media Day in Oct. 2015, Crean discussed how the team needed to develop some depth. He felt it was a long way from where it needed to be.
On Wednesday in a 16-point win against Nebraska, the depth continued to be one of IU’s strongest traits. Over the last nine games, the IU bench has averaged just over 25 points a night.
A rotation of at least five bench players has become genuinely reliable for the Hoosiers. Each night, a different player or two can be counted on to provide a spark in some form or another.
On Wednesday, freshman forward Juwan Morgan was that guy. He entered the game with a mere 32 total points in 26 games. Against Nebraska, he broke out with 12 points and five rebounds in only 11 minutes of play.
With just over six minutes remaining in the game, Morgan dove for a ball on the floor and a scrum ensued fighting for the ball. Crean could be seen turning and pumping up the crowd.
“I just wanted a little help in reminding those guys that’s what Indiana basketball looks like,” he said.
But when Morgan isn’t scoring like he did Wednesday, he can usually be counted on as a versatile defender and a competent rebounder. Crean discussed how Morgan and freshman forward OG Anunoby provide defensive flexibility for IU.
Each of these bench players provides different skills.
Zeisloft is one of the best perimeter shooters in the nation. He has the No. 4 offensive rating in the country, according to KenPom.com.
Bielfeldt has developed into one of the more reliable offensive players on the team. Back in the fall, it seemed like he was forcing some opportunities. Lately, his post moves and jumpers from the top of the key have been lights out.
Anunoby has become the breakout player of the season. He can change a game with an energy play and is one of the team’s best defenders.
Meanwhile, walk-on freshman guard Harrison Niego has worked his way into the rotation over the past week.
Niego provides a steady presence at times. He won’t take too many shots or even hold on to the ball for very long, but he plays hard.
Many of these players are surprises. Nobody foresaw how good Anunoby would be or that Niego would earn real minutes. Yet 27 games in, these surprises have made IU a seemingly more complete team.
This is good news for the Hoosiers, because IU needs this depth if it wants to compete in March.