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March 30, 2013

Column: New chapter awaits Indiana basketball

Walking around the nation's capital on a nice Friday afternoon gave this author some perspective yesterday on how we appropriately honor those that have paved the way for future generations. In our much less significant Indiana basketball world we'll do some of that with the Hoosiers that played their last collegiate game Thursday night, just a short walk from all those monuments and memorials. The Christian Watfords, Jordan Hulls and Derek Elstons brought Indiana through some tough times and into the national spotlight once again. If Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller opt to join them in moving on, we can't say they didn't play a similarly huge role in the turnaround.

That chapter didn't end the way many hoped or expected. Most Indiana fans believed this team should have made the Final Four, or at least survived longer than last season's Sweet Sixteen appearance. One thing you can't take away from that team is Indiana's first outright Big Ten title in 20 seasons. For that reason alone and what all went into getting there, this team will be one that will be long remembered.

Whether you view the ending as a disappointment or not, its clear that we're on to a new chapter in Indiana basketball. One where the struggles of the early Tom Crean era teams are not forgotten, but much less of an important background story and underlying motivation for the players.

Because of all that, the 2013-14 Hoosier team seems to really usher in a new chapter of Indiana basketball. The coach will still be the same but the storylines, the makeup of the roster, the preseason expectations and so many things will be treading new territory.

The new chapter begins

For the sake of this look ahead, let's assume both Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller both make the decision to enter the NBA draft. It's generally what most people seem to expect although in Zeller's case, there's certainly some uncertainty, especially with his struggles in his final two college games.

The question is then can a team that loses four of its five starters and roughly two-thirds of its scoring rebuild quickly enough to return to the tournament?

Maybe. There are so many ifs to play out. The next version of the Hoosiers will certainly go much further under the radar, not burdened with big expectations. With so many new pieces and responsibilities, it could be a team that improves as the season goes along as players get more comfortable with expanded roles.

Momentum down the stretch is so key in the one and done world of the NCAA tournament. Not to say this past year's Indiana team didn't keep improving but it certainly seemed to stagnate down the stretch. Not to get off on a tangent but before the final 10 games, this year's Indiana team was averaging 82.2 points per game and shooting 50.2 percent from the floor. Both were at or near the top offensive numbers in the nation. Then over the final 10 games the Hoosier offense scored just 67.5 points per game and shot only 42.9 percent from the floor. "Mo" left the building and Indiana is back in Bloomington over this Elite Eight weekend.

Back to that potential 2013-14 team. Here's a look at the makeup with past season's stats:

Returning veterans with height, stats and next year's class:

Will Sheehey (6'6, Sr.) - 9.5 pts, 3.5 rebs
Yogi Ferrell (6'0, So.) - 7.8 pts, 4.1 asts
Remy Abell (6'4, Jr.) - 4.0 pts, 1.5 rebs
Jeremy Hollowell (6'7, So.) - 2.8 pts, 2.1 rebs
Maurice Creek (6'5, Sr.) - 1.8 pts, 0.9 rebs
Hanner Mosquera-Perea (6'8, So.) - 0.9 pts, 1.5 rebs

That comprises just 34.1 percent of this year's scoring.

Your incoming recruiting class includes:

Noah Vonleh - 6'9, PF/SF
Troy Williams - 6'6, SF
Stanford Robinson - 6'4, 2G
Luke Fischer - 6'10, C
Devin Davis - 6'6, SF
Collin Hartman - 6'7, SF

Then among other scholarship players you have 6'7 Austin Etherington and 7'0 Peter Jurkin potentially returning from injuries.

Starters are a real guessing game, at least after Ferrell and Sheehey. Vonleh may also be a safe bet as he's the most talented of the newcomers and brings some much needed length to the forward position. And he can really rebound, something that's been primarily handled by Watford and Zeller these last two seasons.

The starting guard opposite Ferrell should be significantly bigger and better defender than Jordan Hulls. A team is much less likely to be taken advantage of defensively if they throw out only one smaller guard.

Remy Abell, Stanford Robinson and Maurice Creek would be the leading candidates and they all go at least 6-foot-4. Sheehey's a tad taller than Oladipo was for that open three spot and while Vonleh will be listed at the same height as Watford, he's got terrific length and should be more of an above the rim player. Jeremy Hollowell and Troy Williams should be in the mix for several spots and both possess pretty big wingspans. You can see where this is going --- this is going to be a "longer" team - more Syracuse like.

If Hollowell or Williams emerge at small forward you could also see Will Sheehey moving up into a starting two guard role. Remy Abell is more of a combo guard than anyone and he could thrive backing up both guard spots in that scenario.

The center spot would seemingly be split between newcomer Luke Fischer and returnee Hanner Mosquera-Perea. Both are better shot blockers than Cody Zeller but don't have his agility, basketball instincts and unique ability to run the court. That pair does seem to offer complementary skills - Perea the much better athlete with unique length and Fischer the guy with the better ball skills and more reliable back to the basket game.

Outside shooting will be a real question mark. Hulls, Watford and Oladipo were the three top 3-point shooters, making two-thirds of all shots beyond the arc this past season. Austin Etherington and Collin Hartman are known for shooting but in Etherington's case he has a long rehab in front of him and Hartman, the only signee not in the Rivals150, is very streaky with his shot with a tendency to fade into a miss. Sheehey was fourth on the team with 28 made 3-pointers and his ability to embrace more of a primary shooter role will be key. Remy Abell made 16-for-33 from the distance this year but many of those came early in the season. His ability to shoot the three will probably determine whether he starts opposite Ferrell as his defense and ability to drive are unquestioned.

Offseason Need List

Looking back at the career arcs of Oladipo. Watford, Sheehey --- those players have been able to successfully address weaknesses in the offseason. For Indiana to return to the tournament many of these "needs" will also have to be addressed.

Here's one man's opinion on needed offseason improvements:

Will Sheehey - adapt to finding good shots when he suddenly becomes priority No. 1 of the opposing defense. He's in the difficult position of going from never being a top three priority of a defense to the one guy that teams will try to shadow. He also needs to get better with the ball. Against Syracuse this week and other times he's been hesitant and it's time to step up there, especially if he wants to make some money in this game after next season.

Maurice Creek - offseason could be great opportunity for Creek to get more weight or base into his legs. If he can do that he can overcome some of the quickness he's lost through his leg injuries. If he's not a defensive liability, and he's still got terrifically quick hands, then he could be the perimeter threat Indiana needs.

Remy Abell - a more compact release on his jumper is an obvious area to improve. He has so much going on before he launches his shot. It can work for him but the less going on, the better. He also needs to be smarter with the ball as he'll need to back-up Ferrell at point, whether he starts opposite him or not.

Austin Etherington - a successful rehab of his leg. If that happens then he has to develop a quicker release on his jumper. He can shoot it fine when he's wide open but at this level you don't find yourself wide open too often.

Yogi Ferrell - can't continue to try to make passes with both feet off the ground. And has to be more selective with those one hand passes. Those two issues were really obvious these last two games. He probably needs a little less lift and power in his jumper, at least from the three range. He's terribly streaky from there and needs to improve upon his 30.3 percent rate from that distance. He did get better from there as the season went along, and has a great rep for spending time at Cook Hall working on his shot.

Jeremy Hollowell - focus is his constant issue. Better concentration from him and he hits that finger roll in the lane against Syracuse. How many times did he nearly make a big play only to just not finish? He also has be more selective with his spin moves in the lane as it's resulted in several turnovers. His outside shot is still probably too much of a launch than a smooth release. You can go on and one with Hollowell and that's why he's really an X-factor for 2013-14.

Hanner Mosquera-Perea - obviously better hands. Better instincts around the basket when he has the ball on offense or when making defensive decisions would help tremendously as well, but if all he does is come back with better hands, he changes the outlook for next season.

Peter Jurkin - a healthy leg and if that happens, some more strength and weight on those legs. His lack of base makes it really difficult for him to move laterally. Indiana will again be thin on frontline depth so if he's ready to help, he can have an impact.

Important to note that even if Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo both head to the NBA, Indiana is oversigned by three, so one returning player or signee will likely be somewhere else come the fall.

Poll/Fan Expecations

So what are your expectations for next season? Peegs.com has a poll now on the premium board to measure what fans are thinking as they look ahead: Vote here

Or if you've got too much in your head to express in a vote, email me your thoughts on this column and next year. I'm hanging in D.C. for another day and would like to get an idea where fans come down now as we head into this new chapter of Indiana basketball. We may gather up some of more interesting viewpoints to throw into a quick story with the results from the poll linked above.

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