December 29, 2010
Was it a monumental upset? Certainly not. Was it a sign of how far away Indiana still is from contending in the Big Ten? Absolutely.
Entering Saturday's home game against Ohio State, Indiana has now lost three straight games to the likes of Northern Iowa, Colorado and Penn State. Flaws hidden by a tissue-soft early schedule are now being exposed, from poor overall defense, to a lack of quality big men, to the slow recovery of talented shooting guard Maurice Creek from a a fractured left knee suffered last December.
To get a better idea what the prognosis for Indiana is this season and beyond and how much pressure is on coach Tom Crean to translate recruiting into results, I spoke to Mike Pegram of Rivals.com's Indiana affiliate, Peegs.com. Here are Pegram's thoughts on the present and future of Indiana basketball's rebuilding process:
JE: Nobody expected Indiana to contend in the Big Ten this season, but I think folks probably expected a better product than we've seen lately. How would you explain what's gone wrong the past three games?
MP: They've lost three straight games they've been favored to win and that hasn't gone over too well. They have some fundamental weaknesses that sometimes take a while to get exposed. They played a schedule that included a lot of low-major teams near the bottom of the computer rankings and then they played well at Kentucky, but those weaknesses have really began to show themselves of late.
JE: How much of Indiana's lack of quality frontcourt players is a result of 7-footer Guy Marc-Michel being declared ineligible before the season?
MP: The frontline is just a real problem for them right now. That's something they haven't been able to address in recruiting. They thought they addressed it but the loss of the 7-footer hurt. Not that he was going to be a future NBA all-star but there was a void left that has really hurt them a lot. People also have to understand that Maurice Creek is nowhere near where he could be physically but next season he might be. He's nowhere near where he was physically. I think some of it is psychological right now, but if he were at the level he was at before the injury, I don't think this team loses some of the games it has lost.
JE: How much of a difference will it make adding top recruit Cody Zeller to that frontcourt next season?
MP: It's not necessarily that he'll come in and average 15 points and double-figure rebounds or something, but he'll draw some attention and defend and rebound better than anyone they have. Those last two things, he'll be able to do. He's a really good rebounder. There's so much you can do just by being big and being fundamentally sound.
JE: Given how much the program is still struggling on the court, does it speak to the immense rebuilding task coach Crean inherited when he accepted the job?
MP: He started from scratch with basically no scholarship players returning. He always talks about how usually stuff gets handed down from the older players to the younger ones and how you need experienced guys who have gone through the wars and know what it takes to work hard during the week and in the offseason. The fact that they haven't had that has hurt them. And then lately he's pointed out that this team needs to believe it can win. He thinks it's a better team, but they've really come up short in the final minutes of games lately.
JE: What's a reasonable expectation for Indiana for the remainder of this season?
MP: I think maybe six or seven wins in the conference season. That would get them to a .500 overall season, which could mean a postseason berth either in the NIT or one of the smaller ones. There's the expectation this year that .500 is the benchmark. Those expectations came before the news that they wouldn't be able to play the 7-foot junior college player (Guy Marc-Michel) who got ruled ineligible and I think a lot of people thought Maurice Creek would be a little further along with his rehab, but I think people are still holding onto 15 or 16 wins which could get them to the postseason.
JE: What do you need to see from this year's players this season to be confident that Indiana can contend for an NCAA tournament berth next season in what should be a weaker Big Ten?
MP: One of the problems with this team is it doesn't defend very well, and they've got to make some advancements in that area. The past few games, the other teams have shot an extremely high percentage the first 10 minutes and put Indiana in a hole. Other than maybe Jeremiah Rivers, nobody on the team is known for their defensive abilities. Defense is something you can improve upon with hard work. If they can make some advancement in that area, that will set them up when they do get some of these talented players on future teams.
JE: How much patience does the fan base have right now, and how important is it for Crean to have some on-court success next season?
MP: I think there's one more year of patience of not making the tournament, but I think people have been really impatient the past week. They just want to see the program get a little bit better. There have been times in the past three games and stretches last year where it didn't look like that was happening, and that led to people questioning things. But this team is still 9-5 and that will buy patience for the moment, but this is Indiana and people aren't going to be extremely patient for long.
JE: Considering the recruits Crean has lined up in 2012 and beyond, would it be short-sighted for Indiana to consider firing him after next season if the team again finishes in the lower half of the Big Ten?
MP: I don't think coach Crean's job is going to be in jeopardy. Everyone understands it's going to be a long rebuilding job. He has everyone's support and he's said the right things and done the right things in the eyes of the important people. This is a really long rebuilding job and you don't give anyone just four years. It wasn't a normal situation. Because the talent in the pipeline is pretty well-regarded, I think that adds to the level of patience and the level of time he'll be given. I think the kids that come in will need a little bit of time to learn the system and learn what college basketball is all about. If they weren't recruiting well, it would be a more relevant question.