1. How will A.J. Ratliff fit into the Hoosiers' plans? Indiana has a very good problem – it must figure out how a near double-digit scorer and 41 percent 3-point shooter from a year ago fits into a backcourt rotation that currently has three players averaging double figures and another (Jamarcus Ellis) that leads the squad in rebounding and assists. That's the situation IU Coach Kelvin Sampson is facing now that Ratliff is back. Sampson would have preferred to sort this matter out in November and December, but Ratliff's academic ineligibility prevented that from happening. So how, exactly, does Ratliff fit in? While Ellis, Eric Gordon, Armon Bassett and Jordan Crawford can play a couple of positions, Ratliff is strictly a ‘2'. He's not a ball handler, and he's not overly adept at putting the ball on the floor and attacking the rim. But he can shoot the 3 and defend, so he'll have a role. But it's hard to imagine it will resemble the 22 minutes and 9.3 points he averaged a year ago. With Gordon getting most of the minutes at shooting guard, 12 minutes and five points/game seems like a more realistic contribution for Ratliff this season.
2. What sort of productivity will IU get from the ‘4'? The one starting position that remains unsettled is the ‘4', where IU has started Lance Stemler, Mike White and DeAndre Thomas this season. For the time being it appears to be White's job, as he has proven to be the best rebounder of the bunch. Thomas, meanwhile, is the best low-post scorer of the three, and Stemler is the top shooter. The odds are White will continue to be the starter thanks to his work on the offensive glass and a big, physical frame that allows him to match up with low post scorers as well. But he's not going to be a 30-minute plus player, so IU will need to continue to get contributions from Stemler and Thomas as well.
3. Can the Hoosiers be dominant on the road? To win its first Big Ten title since 2002, Indiana is going to need to dominant at home like it was a year ago, but much better on the road. While Indiana's 2-6 Big Ten road record was deceiving since it was competitive in every game, it still only beat Northwestern and Penn State away from Assembly Hall. Considering the fact the league appears to be more top heavy than it's been in recent years, Indiana likely needs to win at least five or six road games to win the league crown. The Hoosiers will get a chance to establish themselves on the road early, with three early road tests at Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota. Those four teams were a combined 21-16 in non-conference play, and all look to be bottom half league teams. But there remains a question about how well IU is prepared for life on the road, since it played only one road game (at Southern Illinois) in the non-conference.
4. Will D.J. White continue his Big Ten-MVP caliber play? IU senior D.J. White is doing more than simply providing the inside threat to balance Eric Gordon's perimeter dominance. White is, in fact, playing like the Big Ten MVP. With seven double-doubles in his last eight games, White has had his way with everyone he's been matched up against. He's shooting nearly 70 percent from the floor during that eight-game stretch, and at 16.4 points/game and 9.7 rebounds/contest, he has a chance to become the first IU player to average a double-double since Alan Henderson did it 13 years ago. As good as White's been, the competition will get stiffer over the next two months. The likes of Illinois' Shaun Pruitt, Wisconsin's Brian Butch and Michigan State's Goran Suton, though, will make things more difficult on the IU senior, and the Hoosiers' Big Ten title hopes require that he continue to his dominant play.
5. Will Indiana continue to get to the free-throw line as often as it has in the non-conference season? The Hoosiers appear to be a team that's well built to succeed on the road. Why? Because they've been the Big Ten's best rebounding team, and they've been the nation's best at getting to the free-throw line. That combination is a sure fire way to keep teams from putting together sustained runs, and it's those runs that get home crowds worked up and into the game. Now, the question becomes whether or not officials will be as quick to send players to the free-throw line now that Big Ten play has started. The Big Ten has long been known as a physical league, and officials probably let defenders get away with more in the Big Ten than most other conferences. Indiana is hoping it can maintain its steady march to the free-throw line now that January has arrived.
6. When will the NCAA matters be sorted out, and how will that affect the team? Indiana is still awaiting word from the NCAA on its self-reported violations, and there's no timetable on when that will be resolved. So long as it's out there, it will be a question Sampson will have to occasionally address. Indiana is hoping its self-assessed punishment will suffice for the NCAA, but that's far from a certainty. If the NCAA comes down hard on IU in the middle of the Big Ten season, it's hard to guess what sort of impact that would have on this year's team. The sooner it gets addressed by the NCAA the sooner Indiana and its fans can turn the page and return its entire focus to a season that has a chance to be special.
7. Will Eric Gordon play well enough to make it a foregone conclusion that he'll depart for the NBA at season's end? It's not often that a freshman can dominant the Big Ten, but there haven't been many freshman to enter the league that are of Eric Gordon's caliber. Gordon enters league play leading the conference in scoring at 23.4/game, and has a chance to be the first freshman to lead the conference in scoring since Minnesota's Kris Humphries averaged 21.7 points in 2003-04. Most are already projecting Gordon as a top-five pick in this year's NBA Draft, and if he is as dominant in league play as he's been in the non-conference action, it's hard to imagine he'll be back for a second go-around in Bloomington.
8. How high will the Hoosiers climb in the national polls during the next month? The early portion of the Hoosiers' league schedule is soft, with its first match-up against a legitimate conference contender not coming until its Jan. 31 match-up against Wisconsin in Madison. Indiana figures to be favored in its first six league games as well as in a non-conference encounter with UConn, so it's within the realm of possibility IU could be 18-1 by Jan. 31 and ranked in the nation's top five. Indiana hasn't been ranked in the nation's top five in more than 10 years, with its most lofty ranking coming in December, 2002, when IU started 8-0 and climbed to No. 6 in the polls before losing to Kentucky 70-64 in Freedom Hall.
9. Will Indiana be a better team in close games than it was a year ago? The Hoosiers finished 21-11 a year ago, but went just 7-10 in games decided by less than 10 points. During the Hoosiers' 11-1 start to the 2007-08 campaign they've played only one single-digit game, beating Georgia Tech 83-79 at home. As the Big Ten race heats up, Indiana figures to be in many more closely contested games, and the Big Ten title will eventually be decided by which team fares the best in those games. On paper IU would figure to be a team that would be successful in close games due to the presence of the Big Ten's best low-post scorer in D.J. White along with its ability to get to the free-throw line. But Indiana is still a young team, particularly in the backcourt where its four primary ball-handlers are a pair of freshmen (Gordon, Crawford), a sophomore (Bassett) and a first-year JUCO transfer (Ellis). So this will be uncharted territory for all of them other than Bassett.
10. How will Indiana fare against opposing teams' zone defenses? As the season wears on, Indiana figures to see plenty of zone defenses from teams around the league. While the Hoosiers are the league's third-best 3-point shooting team (37.8 percent), the presence of D.J. White on the interior along with the ability of Gordon, Crawford, Ellis and Bassett to penetrate and either finish, create for their teammates, or get to the free-throw line is what will concern teams the most. It's a pick-your-poison situation for IU's foes, and many of them figure to see if Indiana can beat them from behind the arc. These will be the sort of games where Ratliff could be especially important, because he's the team's second-best catch-and-shoot 3-point marksmen behind Gordon.
IU's Big Ten Questions
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