Rebuilding the Indiana men's basketball program provides Tom Crean with challenges that other coaches simply don't face.
Yes, the losses hurt, but every coach has to deal with wins and losses. The lack of experience is an issue for coach Crean, but there are other young teams out there. The biggest challenge for Crean -- one that no other school in the country faces -- is that the veteran leadership that is so important to a program's success simply doesn't exist at IU.
We're not talking about the verbal leadership. Anybody can be a leader for a team, and the Hoosiers have a few players who are stepping into that role. No, the leadership IU is lacking comes from the roster Crean was left with in the wake of the purge of the Kelvin Sampson Era.
When Crean took over the Hoosiers in April 2008, IU had just a handful of players on the roster. By the time practice opened that September exactly two players on the roster had appeared in an Indiana game before -- junior walk-on Brett Finkelmeier and senior Kyle Taber. Taber was a former walk-on himself, and his playing time had been very limited under Mike Davis and Kelvin Sampson. Finkelmeier never saw much floor time. He was a practice body, someone who helped pump up IU's team GPA. Taber made himself valuable, but he was never more than a decent player in limited minutes. He wasn't exactly a crafty player who had learned the ins-and-outs of playing in the Big Ten.
With nobody around to do just that, the little tricks of the trade and leadership that comes to with experience hasn't existed at Indiana over the past two and a half years. The respect of officials that comes after years of playing in a conference has been tough to come by as well. Worst of all, finding that intangible knowledge and respect will be slow to come by.
Players will certainly pick up experience, and eventually they will pass on what they've learned in games and watched on film to younger players. Eventually players will spend enough time in the Hoosier program and produce at a high enough level to earn the respect of officials. But in the meantime, IU's roster is packed with players who are still finding their way, who don't have the luxury of being taught how to play in the Big Ten by teammates who have been through the wars and excelled.
As proof, consider that IU doesn't currently have a four-year player in the program. Jeremiah Rivers is a senior, but he spent his first two years at Georgetown and is still finding his own role with the Hoosiers. He helps a little, but he can't do it all in the mentoring department. IU won't have a four-year player in the program until next year when Verdell Jones III, Tom Pritchard, Matt Roth, Daniel Moore and Kory Barnett are seniors. Of that group, only Jones and Pritchard play major minutes, and Pritchard lacks confidence on the floor.
Until the Hoosiers can build that experience and start to pass down knowledge, IU will have to work extra hard to find success on the court. Like everything else in the Crean Era, it will take a bit more patience and a bit more time, and the Hoosiers have to keep the faith that someday the program will be stocked with savvy players who can serve as mentors to the younger players.
--Freshman G Will Sheehey is starting to see more playing time, and head coach Tom Crean has said he plans on giving Sheehey a heavy dose of minutes in the next few weeks to help build the team's depth. Crean, however, is balancing his desire to develop Sheehey with his desire to avoid throwing too many freshmen on the floor at once, something that has led to Sheehey seeing inconsistent minutes.
--Senior G Jeremiah Rivers is starting to earn some trust from the coaching staff by not trying to do too much on the floor and concentrating on filling his role as a defender and rebounder. Rivers freelanced too much with the ball last year, but this season he seems to have found his niche.
--Sophomore F Christian Watford may be inconsistent on the offensive end, but he is doing a good job of getting to the free-throw line and converting. Watford ranks among the top 10 in the conference in free-throw percentage and has been a stabilizing force at the line for a team that has struggled from the charity stripe at times this season.
BY THE NUMBERS: 9 -- Number of home wins collected by the Hoosiers this season, the highest number of victories at Assembly Hall for IU in the Tom Crean Era. Indiana is 1-1 vs. Michigan at home in the Crean Era, allowing a 20-point lead to slip away Jan. 7, 2009, and winning a 71-65 decision in Bloomington last season.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "You've got to make adjustments on the fly, and it can't just be when the coach calls time-out. It can't just be from a coach. It has to be from the players inside of the game. That's why having conversations, those hundreds of conversations that you need to have in the course of a game, that's what communication is. It's not just watch the pick or ball-screen left, it's the conversations you need to have and we need to do a better job of that."?-- Tom Crean on how his team needs to improve when it comes to communication on the floor during the flow of the game.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAMES:
--vs. Michigan, Jan. 15
KEY MATCHUPS: Indiana's shaky three-point defense will get a workout for the second-straight game when the Hoosiers take on the Wolverines in Assembly Hall. John Beilein's crew loves to fire up the long ball, and Michigan's Stu Douglass will test IU's Christian Watford on the perimeter. Guards Jordan Hulls and Maurice Creek will have to play tighter defense, as well, to harass Michigan's shooters. Indiana's big men will face a challenge in keeping UM's Zack Novak off the boards in this one.
FUTURES MARKET: Freshman Victor Oladipo has always impressed with his athleticism and passion for defense, but he also is making his presence felt on offense. Oladipo doesn't boast the smoothest shot, but he is aggressive and isn't afraid to take a shot with the clock winding down.
More importantly, Oladipo is learning to get to the free-throw line when his shot isn't falling. For instance, last week vs. Minnesota Oladipo went just 3-of-11 shooting, but he still finished with 13 points because he earned eight trips to the line. He converted seven of those attempts, a feat in and of itself considering his inconsistency at the line.
Oladipo has earned minutes late in games, and although he still makes mistakes, he clearly has earned the trust of Tom Crean, who believes Oladipo has a high ceiling if he stops trying to make great plays and just becomes a great player.
--Sophomore G Maurice Creek is coming off the bench after losing his starting job to freshman G Victor Oladipo. Tom Crean says he's just looking for energy from Creek, and Creek could thrive with the lowered expectations on him as part of the second unit.
--Senior G Jeremiah Rivers spent some time talking to his teammates about how to defend Northwestern's Princeton-style offense before the Hoosiers took on the Wildcats. Jan. 9. Rivers played in the same type of offense when he was at Georgetown, and he warned his teammates to continue to play with intensity in the last five minutes of the first half and the first five minutes of the second half because the offense is designed to take advantage of teams when they are tired and let their guard down.
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