When IU Coach Tom Crean guided his team to the Sweet Sixteen in 2013, it was considered a failure. When the nine-year IU Coach did it last season, it was considered a success.
This season, the Hoosiers are expected to go well beyond that mark in the NCAA tournament, starting the season at No. 11 in the AP Top 25, but lack the leadership they had from a season ago.
They’ll be tested early and often, opening up the season Friday in Hawaii against No. 3 Kansas before taking on No. 6 North Carolina later in November.
IU will battle Butler on Dec. 17 and No. 13 Louisville on New Year’s Eve, both in Indianapolis, while starting its Big Ten slate against Nebraska at home on Dec. 28. Five teams in the Big Ten are ranked in the preseason polls with Wisconsin leading the way at No. 9 and Michigan State right behind IU at No. 13.
A 15-3 record in conference play a season ago guided the Hoosiers to a Big Ten championship, but Crean understands there is a long way to go to be able to get back to cutting down the nets at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall.
“There’s a lot of talk about how ready we have to be in the preseason,” Crean said. “This is not a deal where our biggest games are coming up in December. There are big games in December but we’ll already have played against two of the top five teams in the country throughout November when we play Carolina later in the month.”
IU gets hit with one crucial stretch in the early conference season that could really define its chances of repeating as Big Ten regular season champions starting after the Louisville game.
After opening the Big Ten slate with Nebraska, IU will play Wisconsin and Illinois at home before traveling to No. 25 Maryland for their first Big Ten road game.
The Wisconsin game is key because the Badgers return 99 percent of the minutes recorded by players who received playing time a season ago and are projected to finish ahead of the Hoosiers per the preseason Big Ten standings. The Wisconsin and Illinois games are also crucial because they take place over IU’s winter break.
Although there will still be candy stripes that flood the crowd, the student presence, which was a large reason why the Hoosiers went 17-0 at Assembly Hall last year, will not be as strong.
Other significant conference games this season include a home contest against Michigan State in late January, a road game at Wisconsin and home matchup against Purdue back to back in early February and a game at Purdue later that month.
The focus of the team all offseason has been getting healthy enough to compete at a high level when the season starts.
With three returning players recovering from major offseason surgeries, along with eight newcomers, two of those guys hampered by injury, Crean said he doesn’t feel like his team is ready as the Hoosiers are behind in implementing different offensive schemes compared to a year ago at this time.
“The urgency part is about we gotta get these things figured out now,” Crean said. “We don’t have a fifth of our playbook that we would have had in a year ago at this point. If we go fast for the sense of the urgency that they have to have to compete at a very high level, to be physical, to rebound the ball, to get back on defense that’s going to really carry you over into the game and that’s the important stuff to me.”
Losing senior forward Collin Hartman to a knee injury in preseason practice was an unlucky knock for the Hoosiers as he is the lone senior on the team. Hartman has been moved into a coaching role because of his injury and Crean said Hartman stopped practice on two separate occasions the other day to highlight things he noticed.
In Hartman’s stead, IU will have to lean on a trio of junior guards to be the leaders in Robert Johnson, James Blackmon Jr. and Josh Newkirk. Crean said it’s apparent how much Blackmon Jr. has improved from last season just from seeing how he kept playing with intensity on defense even as he shot 0-for-7 from beyond the arc in the second exhibition game.
Although no one has emerged as the leader at this point in time, those players are in the mix, and it might be one of those guys, along with sophomore standouts Thomas Bryant and OG Anunoby, that bring back-to-back regular season Big Ten titles to Bloomington.
“What we have to really get is responsibility from one another and it sounds really simple, but it’s not,” Crean said. “The more you can do that for each other when you’re tired and fatigued and take that responsibility to help your team get through things then all of sudden your leadership starts to take shape and it makes the game a whole lot easier.”
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