On a homecoming weekend marred by an ugly football loss to the Northwestern Wildcats, plenty of Indiana fans had to be thinking: â€œBasketball season needs to get here now.â€
Fortunately â€“ approximately half an hour after Northwestern put the finishing touches on a beatdown â€“ fans had the chance to file over to Assembly Hall to watch the basketball team scrimmage and remind themselves that the Hoosiers will be taking to the court again in a few short weeks.
Thereâ€™s been a ton of offseason hype about the improvements that players have made and the renewed team emphasis on defense. Hoosier Hysteria gave a taste of what we could expect from IU basketball this year and â€œThe Haunted Hall of Hoopsâ€ was another chance to take a look at the team and try and glean some new information about the Indiana basketball team.
Keeping in mind that the event was a glorified scrimmage, hereâ€™s what I saw from both the team and the players from Saturday afternoon.
This may come off as hyperbole, but after watching Victor Oladipo and Will Sheehey during the Hoosiersâ€™ last two public scrimmages, Iâ€™m convinced that the two sophomores could very well be the most complete players on the team. This isnâ€™t intended as a comment on Cody Zeller, Christian Watford or anyone else; itâ€™s just that both of them have been active on defense, active on the glass, and now can get to the rim and hit a midrange jumper.
They were both a part of some of the scrimmageâ€™s most effective lineups and did a bunch of little things (spacing, Oladipoâ€™s improved handle, Sheeheyâ€™s higher release point) well. Up to now most have assumed that Verdell Jones will start at one of the guard spots, but after watching the play of Sheehey and Oladipo itâ€™s hard to make the case that Verdell is better than either of them. These guys are good.
Zeller was outstanding in the scrimmage at Hoosier Hysteria as he ran the floor, provided a post presence and showed the potential to be the type of player Indiana hasnâ€™t had since DJ White. He struggled a little more on Saturday though, as he had foul trouble in the 1st half and had trouble working in the post against Derek Elston. He ran the floor well again and showed a free throw stroke that should translate to a solid mid-range game. However, when he couldnâ€™t get position down low, the offense stagnated a bit.
To be fair, Elston looked better than he did last year but the B1G is filled with post defenders (many of them better than Elston) who may be able to give Zeller trouble. Zeller is going to be a solid contributor and I think most people have tried to keep expectations for him reasonably tempered, but as much as heâ€™s been discussed this week itâ€™s important to remember heâ€™ll have to do some adjusting. Saturday served as an adequate reminder.
While weâ€™re somewhat on the topic of Derek Elstonâ€¦ how about Derek Elston?! Coming into the year, I was of the opinion that Elston would be one of the linchpins for this team because of the lack of depth in the IU frontcourt. Elston was disappointing last season, as he seemed to regress from a solid freshman campaign, a regression that was explained by a bevy of injuries that wracked him all season long. Word from around the team is that heâ€™s finally healthy and ready for a bounce-back year. After watching him, I believe it.
He effectively bodied and moved with Zeller in the post, got to rebounds and showed the athleticism that the injuries took from him last year. He pulled out an impressive spin move in the post and finished a fast break with an authoritative dunk â€“ something that he wasnâ€™t capable of doing last year. He still looks like a Viking warrior from Norse mythology, but may actually have the game to back it up this year. Elston might very well surprise a lot of people this year, and if he does, the Hoosiers could too.
Heâ€™s Jordy Hulls, just a little quicker and stronger. Same sweet shot he had last year, only heâ€™s better at getting it off.
Verdell Jones III
See: Jordy Hulls. Both look pretty similar to last year. I was actually kind of disappointed in what I saw from Verdell, in that he didnâ€™t show the same improvement as a lot of other guys. He looks a bit stronger but I liked what I saw from Hulls, Sheehey and Oladipo more. If he werenâ€™t a senior, Iâ€™m not sure he would start.
Watford is noticeably quicker and did a good job at driving and getting to the foul line. He also seemed to benefit from playing with Zeller, which wasnâ€™t surprising. Weâ€™ll see how he is on defense when the season rolls around, but Iâ€™m cautiously optimistic for now.
Etheringtonâ€™s play was pleasantly surprising. He hit some shots, ran the floor well and played solid defense (he also airballed a three late, but we can let that slide). I came in thinking there wasnâ€™t much reason to play him this year, but he at least looks like he can play without being totally overwhelmed.
The defensive intensity looked better than it did for most of last year, especially from some guys who werenâ€™t great on that end last year (Elston, Hulls). We didnâ€™t get a feel for Tom Pritchard, who will presumably be a big part of the interior defense, but it looked at least decent. One thing that concerns me is Matt Rothâ€™s success. Heâ€™s a great shooter and he has nearly unlimited range, but IU struggled to defend the arc last year and letting Roth bury five three-pointers isnâ€™t a great way to help fans feel good about perimeter defense.
I donâ€™t have many bad things to say about how the offense played. There were a few stagnant stretches, but the spacing was better, driving was more effective and Cody Zeller did make a difference. For the Crimson team (probable starters), scoring looked pretty easy. Both teams ran the fast break when they could and both teams passed more than they did last year. The ball moved well, and there were more â€œpretty playsâ€ (as Coach McClain likes to say), which was a welcome sight.
Even Smaller Observations:
He can still shoot from Roth Range. Yep.
He looks like a player, but struggled on both sides Saturday. He might need some time to develop.
In the best way possible, he looks like an athletic 30-year old who plays pickup on Thursdays at the â€˜Yâ€™. It might be the undershirt.
Taylor â€œBucketsâ€ Wayer
He should be starting. Heâ€™s a frigginâ€™ boss. What else is new?
I donâ€™t believe that this team is ready to make the leap to 20 wins and a surefire NCAA berth, but thereâ€™s no question that they look better than last yearâ€™s group. The Hoosiers (in an admittedly limited sample size) look like a better offensive and defensive unit, with players who have improved. It may be a challenge to buy into a team thatâ€™s struggled as much as Indiana has over the past three years, but thereâ€™s legitimate reason for optimism this year. This is a group with talent and experience that should be able to score points more easily than they have in any year since Tom Crean has been here.
There are a couple apparent question marks that will bear watching (Verdellâ€™s role in the offense, perimeter defense, crunch time performance), but I feel okay about this yearâ€™s team.
Weâ€™ll see if thatâ€™s still the case in January.