LAST SEASON – With IU, the question was never about firepower. They had one of the better offensive groups in the nation. What wasn’t known is whether the Hoosiers could defend well enough to truly contend in the league and make a run in March. Early results were not favorable, as IU looked bad in Maui and got their doors blown off against a Duke team which wasn’t quite up to usual standards.

Then a funny thing happened. James Blackmon, one of their top offensive players, went out with a season ending injury. All of a sudden, the defense got better, the offense got a little more cohesive, and IU went on to win the Big Ten and make a run to the Sweet Sixteen. In Bloomington, anything less than a Final Four is never going to be considered a great season, but this was a very good one…IMO, given expectations, perhaps the best of the Tom Crean era.

THIS SEASON – The Hoosiers got good news (it would seem, at least) when James Blackmon opted to return to college. The 6’4″ junior has unquestionable offensive talent and with the team having lost Yogi Ferrell and Nick Zeisloft, the Hoosiers will need the scoring punch Blackmon can provide. He scored almost 16 ppg when he was healthy. Blackmon is more of a perimeter threat but he does have the ability to get to the rim at times as well and should probably look to do that more often this year to broaden his offensive game. The real question mark is on defense. He’s been a bad individual defender and the team’s performance improved once he went out, which was probably not entirely coincedental. This is a big year for Blackmon. If he wants to be a pro, he can start changing some perceptions now and the things he needs to do for that to happen coincide with the things IU needs from him in order for the team to be successful.

Robert Johnson is also a 6’4″ junior and is one of the more underrated “good” players in the conference. He averaged 8.1 ppg on plus 40% shooting both overall and from three. He also chipped in 3.3 rpg and 3.1 apg. He’s not a point guard but is solid enough on the ball to chip in with reserve minutes. He’s probably the top individual defender among the perimeter guys this year. I would expect his scoring to tick upward a bit and perhaps for him to start getting a little bit more notoriety.

Collin Hartman is a 6’6″ senior who has finally settled into a role on the wing more fitting his physical stature. At different points, Hartman had to play heavy minutes at the 5 spot due to IU’s complete lack of size. Yet, his energy and toughness allowed him to fight through that and now he’s back where he belongs. Hartman is a very good shooter who saw his 3 point % go down a bit last year (35%) but he could easily move back up over 40. He’s not a gifted athlete but he can hang well enough defensively and he gives IU competitive play with good energy whenever he’s on the floor.

The biggest question mark in Hoosierland is who will replace Ferrell at the point. There’s no answer which will address everything IU lost, but they do seem to have some options. Josh Newkirk will get first crack. The 6’1″ junior from Pitt seems to profile as a standard IU backcourt player. He’s very fast, loves to play in an up tempo game, but struggles at the defensive end. IU needs Newkirk to be a steady distributor and creator for all those shooters he has on his wings. He shot 43% from deep as a freshman but declined to under 30% as a second year player…so not sure which one is the “real” Newkirk. They won’t look for anything near the same kind of impact that Ferrell made, but if he can provide occasional scoring, run the offense well, get into transition often and at least be credible defensively, that will be enough.

IU also added three freshmen guards to their mix. The biggest rep belongs to Curtis Jones, a 6’4″ wing who was a prep school teammate of Miles Bridges. He’s a good shooter and good athlete who handles well enough to be considered a combo, so he could pitch in at the point potentially. Jones needs to add some strength to really hit his potential, but I expect him to get solid minutes in the IU rotation right away. Devonte Green is a 6’2″ guard who might not really be a point, though it seems IU may try to get him there in terms of development. 6’5″ Grant Gelon is an Indiana wing who, big surprise, has a reputation as a shooter.

Upfront the big news was the return of 7 foot sophomore Thomas Bryant. Unlike most of the Big Ten draft returnees, Bryant likely would have been a first round pick, so it’s notable that he opted to come back. He could be set for a big year. He showed plenty of offensive ability as a freshman, averaging 11.9ppg. I think he has to show more toughness as a rebounder and start to impact games more consistently on defense as a rim protector, but I’d bet this is his final go-around in Bloomington. He’s an NBA player waiting to happen, given his combination of size, athletic ability and skill set.

The big surprise among Hoosier newcomers last year was 6’8″ soph OG Anunoby. He was the guy who was the primary beneficiary of Blackmon’s departure and once he started playing more minutes, IU got better all the way around. I think he could be set for a big sophomore year as a PF. He’s long enough and athletic enough to guard a wide variety of players, he’s tough and he’s very, very active. The one thing that’s lacking is performance at the FT line, where he was sub 50% (hard to believe, but he shot 48% there and 45% from three). I think he won’t see 4 seasons at IU before he heads to the NBA.

Juwan Morgan is a 6’9″ soph who also had his moments, though less dramatically than Anunoby. He’s a versatile offensive player who should continue to develop into a solid 4/5 man for the Hoosiers. 6’9″ Tim Priller is also back but played sparingly last season and likely will do so again this year.

IU added one impact big man in 6’8″ De’Ron Davis out of Colorado. Davis was a sought after recruit who should help immediately at the 4 and even the 5. He isn’t a finished product but good athleticism and range out to the arc will help him make an offensive impact. He needs to tighten up as a rebounder and defender but his size will be needed by IU in their rotation. Crean also added 6’6″ JUCO forward Freddie McSwain as a late addition to the Hoosier class. McSwain may be able to get into the rotation due to his athletic ability.

BOTTOM LINE – IU should be a contender in the conference again. The loss of Ferrell is significant, but the frontcourt should be better as guys like Anunoby and Bryant continue to mature, and the backcout has a number of guys who can really shoot from deep. I would expect the playing style to be similar to recent Hoosier teams, as they’ll look to play fast, but perhaps with a bit more emphasis on two point scoring than we’ve seen lately (thought they’ll still fire up plenty of threes as well).

As with last year, it mostly will turn on the defensive end as to whether IU can be good or very good. I think their frontcourt can be pretty solid defensively but their guards worry me a bit. That’s why I have them 3rd instead of 2nd or 1st…questions about the defense and about point guard play in general.