Tom Crean’s teams captured Big Ten titles in two of the last four years, but to continue to establish an Indiana legacy, his ability to adjust will be tested this season unlike the past four.
The big test will be coaching a lineup without Yogi Ferrell, who ran the point for the past four seasons. It was easy to draw up in a tight game’s final seconds. The Hoosiers need to find a new go-to guy in crunch time this year.
Junior forward Thomas Bryant and junior guard James Blackmon Jr. were among the 10-member preseason All-Big Ten team, so that’s a strong nucleus to go with a recruiting class ranked in the low 20s to mid-teens by various services.
Crean enters his ninth season having lasted longer in Bloomington than any coach since Bob Knight’s controversial 30-year tenure ended unceremoniously right before the start of the 2000-01 season. But Crean hasn’t established the consistency Indiana fans were accustomed to under Knight.
He needed three losing seasons to rebuild the hollowed out program Kelvin Sampson left behind with NCAA infractions. Crean’s job was on thin ice until an NCAA Tournament trip his fourth year, in 2011-12, followed by his first Big Ten title, 2012-13.
But the Hoosiers dipped to eighth place in the Big Ten the next year and seventh in 2014-15, although the latter was good for an NCAA Tournament berth.
Indiana’s 2015-16 Big Ten title year was more of a surprise than 2012-13, so Crean knows how to put together a winning team without the elite recruits that led his first Big Ten championship club.
The return of Bryant and Blackmon is a good starting point to develop a versatile team. They provide Indiana the balance of big man – the 6-foot-10, 255-pound Bryant – and perimeter scorer – the 6-4, 200-pound Blackmon. Bryant is the Hoosiers’ leading returning scorer (11.9 points) and rebounder (5.8). He’s poised for a breakout season after showing the maturity to ignore the siren call of the NBA Draft to develop his game.
Blackmon started last season, averaging 15.8 points and 4.2 rebounds through 13 games and 12 starts before a season-ending knee surgery on Jan. 5. Also back is junior guard Robert Johnson (6-3, 195), who started 22 of 30 games. He averaged 8.8 points and was second to Ferrell in assists with 3.1.
Josh Newkirk, a junior transfer from Pitt, is projected as Ferrell’s replacement. He sat out last year with a knee injury.
The veterans are joined by two four-star freshmen recruits and two three-stars that may surprise. DeRon Davis (6-foot-10, 240 pounds) and Curtis Jones (6-foot-4, 175 pounds) are the four-stars that provide similar balance to the roster as Bryant and Blackmon.
Davis, from Aurora (Co.) Overland, is a scorer and rebounder. He averaged 13.8 points and 8.9 rebounds as he led his team to back-to-back Colorado 5A titles.
Jones played at Huntington Prep in W.Va., where he was Bryant’s teammate two years ago. He can play point guard or off-guard. He averaged 20 points and five assists last season.
The other incoming freshmen are guards, Devonte Green (6-foot-3, 186 pounds) and Grant Gelon (6-foot-5, 195 pounds). Green and Gelon were only three-star recruits, but Crean has shown a knack to spot undervalued talent in the past with Victor Oladipo and OG Anunoby.
Oladipo was a first-round draft pick in 2013 after his junior season. Anunoby (6-foot-8, 235 pounds) has returned as a sophomore this season. Crean trusted Anunoby enough to play him in 34 games. He averaged 4.9 points and 2.6 rebounds last year.
With a blend of returners, a key transfer and incoming freshmen, the pieces are in place for a run at another Big Ten title and return to the NCAA Tournament.