Heading into the 2015-16 season, the predominant story surrounding the Indiana basketball team was whether or not Tom Crean would be the program's head coach in 2016-17. After the Hoosiers went to Maui — dropping games to Wake Forest and UNLV — and then returned home and got walloped by Duke, the predominant story surrounding the Indiana basketball team really became whether or not Tom Crean would be the program's head coach in 2016-17.
That disastrous start somehow morphed into a 12-game winning streak, an outright Big 10 regular season championship, a win over rival Kentucky in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, and no questions about Crean's immediate future in Bloomington.
Now, a proud Hoosier fan base, which hasn't experienced a regional final since 2002, is understandably hungry for more.
That long sought-after trip past the Sweet 16 could come this March thanks to a handful of key returnees who are expected to blossom into full-fledged stars. Yogi Ferrell, one of the most beloved and effective players in recent IU history, and Troy Williams, one of the most gifted, have both moved on, but Crean has the pieces in play to have an even deeper and more complete team than he had a year ago.
The two best players from Indiana's 2016 Sweet 16 squad are gone, but the Hoosiers still find themselves in our preseason top 10. The reason is that they have arguably the two top NBA prospects in the Big 10 in Thomas Bryant and OG Anunoby, and another guy who will one day get paid to play the game in James Blackmon Jr.
The 6'10 Bryant had a solid freshman season that turned into a sensational March while the 6'8 Anunoby only got to show flashes of his vast potential near the end of the season. Those two, along with proven workhorse Collin Hartman, have the potential to make up one of the country's most formidable frontcourts ... so long as neither struggles with the adjustment of moving from promising role player to relied-upon star.
The challenge for Blackmon Jr. is different. He was Indiana's second-leading scorer before going down with a season-ending knee injury on Dec. 28. Indiana surprised everyone by hitting its stride without Blackmon, and some Hoosier fans made the case that the team had become a better defensive squad without the ultra-talented sophomore. Now it's on Blackmon to not just fully bounce-back from a major knee injury, but to prove that what happened a season ago was not a cut-and-dry, cause-and-effect situation.
If those three guys stay healthy and make the type of step forward that they're capable of, then the Hoosiers will be one of the most entertaining teams in the country this season. They'll also have an insanely large and athletic frontline that should make them a more complete team on the defensive end of the court than some of the squads Crean has trotted out in recent years.
Few players have meant more to Indiana basketball over the past two decades than Yogi Ferrell. In four years, the diminutive floor general went from distributor first, to scorer first, to doing a little bit of everything. He left Indiana as a two-time first team All-Big 10 performer, a second team All-American, and the school's all-time leader in assists. He also became the first player to lead the Hoosiers in points and assists in back-to-back seasons since Isiah Thomas.
Bryant, Blackmon and Anunoby can wind up being as good as the most optimistic preseason Indiana fan hopes they will be, and the Hoosiers will still struggle to play deep into the tournament if Crean is unable to find a suitable replacement for Ferrell.
The most likely scenario is that Ferrell winds up being replaced by a committee, probably spearheaded by junior Robert Johnson.
Johnson has played major minutes in each of his first two seasons as a Hoosier, averaging 8.1 ppg and 3.1 apg last season. He suffered an ankle injury in late February and appeared in just two games in March, but he's fully healthy now and appears poised to be Indiana's primary ball-handler.
In addition to Blackmon occasionally sliding over and playing the one, Crean also has options with versatile 6'8 forward Juwan Morgan, and Pitt transfer Josh Newkirk. Newkirk averaged just over six points and 20 minutes per game as a Pitt sophomore in 2014-15. He had micro-fracture surgery on his left knee after arriving in Bloomington, but was able to return to practice and impress the coaching staff during the second half of last season. Even if he doesn't win a starting spot, expect Newkirk to provide a necessary lift for IU coming off the bench.
Newkirk, Blackmon and Johnson aren't the only Hoosiers who have been battling injuries either this year or earlier in their college careers. Collin Hartman is currently dealing with a left knee injury that has him sidelined indefinitely, junior college transfer Freddie McSwain had knee surgery earlier this fall, and Morgan has been fighting nagging shoulder injuries that required him to have offseason surgery.
If Indiana can stay healthy and find the right combination of players to replace what Ferrell brought to the table for the past four years, the Hoosiers will be able to hang with anybody.