Indiana's rebuild could continue into next season

Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

With Noah Vonleh projected as a lottery pick, the Hoosiers' mediocre season might not be a one-and-done.

Indiana will miss the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in coach Tom Crean's six seasons at the helm. For a school with five national championships and an extended run of success under Bobby Knight, the last half-decade has been a downer for fans in Bloomington.

Even after a big win over Iowa on Thursday, the Hoosiers are just 6-9 in Big Ten play. Indiana fans are focused on the future of their storied program. The future, however, may not start next season.

Indiana's most talented player -- freshman big man Noah Vonleh -- is all but certain to be an NBA lottery pick this season. The Massachusetts-born forward has been a force down low, averaging over 11 points and nine rebounds in his first season in Bloomington. If and when Vonleh leaves, the Hooisers will be awfully thin in the paint.

The list of players Indiana will lose/graduate in 2013 and 2014 would make for a formidable starting five. A roster of Cody Zeller, Victor Oladipo, Vonleh, Jordan Hulls and Will Sheehey would compete for a national title. But that's the college game, especially when nationally ranked recruits are involved.

The limited success Indiana has had this season -- primarily big wins over Wisconsin and Michigan -- has been because of Vonleh and point guard Yogi Ferrell. The sophomore Ferrell is expected to stick around for his junior season, with his undersized frame and developing passing eye more suited to the college game. His scoring has spiked in the absence of Zeller and Oladipo, though, averaging over 17 points per game this season.

After Ferrell, the number of question marks becomes unsettling. Stanford Robinson has looked like a prospect as an off-ball guard in his freshman season, but averages just over six points per game. Jeremy Hollowell, a 6'8 sophomore, will enter his junior season without having averaged more than 20 minutes of playing time per game. He and freshman Troy Williams will be the anchors down low. Williams has shown flashes in his first year, averaging 6.5 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. But one or both will need to make a huge leap in 2014-15, as there are no highly touted big men on their way to Bloomington.

The Hoosiers have two recruits in ESPN's Top 100, a pair of top-50 perimeter players. James Blackmon Jr. (No. 19) and Robert Johnson (No. 46) are off-ball guards who will benefit from the presence of Ferrell. Crean will most likely have to go small, using three-guard lineups to try to run teams out of Assembly Hall. But with Williams and Hollowell as the only depth down low, Indiana will struggle against teams with legitimate bigs. The Hoosiers won't get back to vintage Indiana ball until they get a big or two who have half the talent Vonleh boasts. Half would be nice actually, as the enticing NBA paycheck wouldn't loom.

The natural impulse when a prestigious program struggles is to use the words "rebuilding" or "retooling." But this isn't always a single-year process, as the current makeup of the Hoosiers is a far cry from the team that reached two straight Sweet 16s. With the number of banners hanging in the rafters, Crean should always be able to convince nationally ranked recruits to don the crimson and cream. But fresh recruits require time, and the ones who don't can leave after a single season.

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