#13 Indiana by Ricky O'Donnell

Photo: Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

In a vacuum, Tom Crean's last few seasons at Indiana have been reasonably successful. The Hoosiers have made the NCAA Tournament three times in the last four years, twice reaching the Sweet 16 during that span. Crean has recruited well, constructed one of the country's better offenses and developed two top-five NBA draft picks.

So why does it feel like this program is so often spiraling toward disaster?

You can start with the missed opportunity of 2013, when Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo led a No. 1 seed many expected to reach the Final Four. Since then, Indiana basketball has mostly been defined by missteps off the court: in 2014 alone, six players were cited for drug or alcohol violations. That's also played a part in the revolving door at the bottom of the roster, where eight players have transferred out of the program since the start of the 2013-14 season.

For Crean, a constant barrage of criticism is part of what you sign up for at a place as prestigious as Indiana. There's only one way to satisfy the fanbase, and that's by winning big. Fortunately for Crean, he's put himself in position to do just that this season.

Indiana is going to be dangerous. The Hoosiers have one of the best backcourts in the country, plenty of capable spot-up shooters to ensure maximum spacing and a revamped front court led by a McDonald's All-American freshman. If Crean is feeling the heat now, he might not want to consider the response if Indiana fails to make a deep run in the tournament this year.

There were two decisions that raised the bar for Indiana this season: the first was the commitment of five-star freshman Thomas Bryant, which filled a massive hole on the interior for the Hoosiers. The second was Yogi Ferrell's choice to return for his senior year rather than enter the NBA draft.

It seems like the stars are aligned for a big year for the Hoosiers, but it's still a fragile opportunity. What happens when the threes aren't falling? Is a young front court ready to contribute right away? And especially: can Indiana actually get stops defensively when it counts?

Crean has put in a lot of work to send out a roster this talented. It only makes the pressure more suffocating, because a chance like this doesn't come around every year.

How Indiana can succeed: Produce one of the most dynamic offenses in the country

If the tenants of modern basketball are shooting and spacing, Indiana should be feeling pretty good about its chances this year.

The Hoosiers finished No. 9 in offensive efficiency last season thanks to a small ball attack that relied heavily on capable three-point shooters. As a team, Indiana shot 40.6 percent from deep, which ranked No. 6 in the country. Nearly 40 percent of their possessions ended in an attempt from three, per KenPom.

None of that should change this season. Ferrell should be one of the best point guards in the country as a senior after averaging 16.3 points and 4.9 assists per game last year while hitting 41.6 percent of the 5.8 threes he took per game. He's joined in the backcourt by James Blackmon Jr., a 6'4 sophomore who showcased tremendous scoring instincts in his debut season of college basketball.

Only Maryland's Melo Trimble averaged more points per game among last season's freshmen returning for their sophomore year than Blackmon's 15.7 scoring average. He's another high-volume, high-efficiency three-point shooter (38.7 percent on six attempts per game). As a sophomore, he'll be expected to produce at the same level offensively while stepping his game up on the defensive end.

Troy Williams isn't Indiana's biggest name, but he could be the team's best NBA prospect. He's a human highlight reel in the open court, a great rebounder for a 6'7, 215-pound wing and the Hoosiers' best defender. Williams is the one player in the rotation who isn't a three-point shooter, but he gives the roster an elite athlete who makes plays at the rim and requires lots of attention from opposing defenses.

From there, Indiana has a revolving cast of shooters. Lots and lots of shooters.

Robert Johnson has more two-way upside than the rest as a former top-50 recruit entering his sophomore year after hitting 38.8 percent of his threes as a freshman. Collin Hartman is pivotal because he can shoot from the four, while Illinois State transfer Nick Zeisloft was the best volume shooter (45 percent from deep on 4.1 attempts per game) on a roster full of them.

If a young frontcourt led by Bryant, fellow freshman Juwan Morgan and Michigan grad transfer Max Bielfeldt can hold its own, Indiana's shooting should ensure it's one of the better offenses in America once again.

How the Hoosiers can go home early: A failure to step up defensively

There's no reason to sugarcoat it: no elite offensive team had a worse defense last year than Indiana.

While finishing No. 9 in offensive efficiency, the Hoosiers were also No. 214 in defensive efficiency. Indiana rarely forced turnovers, let opponents feast on the offensive glass and allowed the opposition to shoot 51 percent on two-pointers. None of that is good.

Some of this stems from the trade-off that comes with playing four or five shooters together. Some of it is because Ferrell is undersized and Blackmon only seemed to give effort on offense as a freshmen. You can also point to last season's spotty front court rotation, which has been completely overhauled this year.

Regardless, Indiana is going to have to show up defensively this year. That will be easier said than done in Big Ten play against teams like Purdue and Maryland who have a lot of size, but if nothing else it will be a good tune-up for the NCAA Tournament.

No one is questioning Indiana's offense. If the defense can improve, there's no ceiling on how good the Hoosiers can be.

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