Looking past Northwestern for just one moment

Big Ten Tournament: Indiana Hoosiers v Penn State Nittany LionsUnderstatement of the new year: This was not a banner Saturday-Sunday (or just Sunday, really) for many of you, and it’s probably even worse to think about the fact that, not only did IU lose at Assembly Hall north, but the Colts were undone by a former Hoosier and a former Boilermaker together.

In acknowledgment of your fragile state of mind, (and also because I don’t want an angry mob outside my apartment tonight) the references to any certain Super Bowl that may have been played in the last 48 hours will end here. But I did want to touch on the Northwestern loss for a moment, because it sparked within me some food for thought.

By now, I think it’s fair to say that we can generally agree that Verdell Jones looks like a candidate to be considered one of the Hoosiers’ team leaders next season. He’s increased his scoring by almost four points per game, he’s got a better assist-to-turnover ratio and he’s rebounding the ball better compared to last season.

More than that, Jones is one of the few Hoosiers who appears to be comfortable being a vocal leader — shots of him getting in teammates’ faces after fouls or poor decisions, or explaining things in tense situations against Minnesota would be examples of this.

I’ll also throw into the conversation the fact that, at his current pace, Jones will improve in several categories, including scoring, in Big Ten play, when competition is supposed to be tougher. In fact, his top five scoring performances have all come in conference play.

All of this is a precursor to the primary point of the argument: Indiana is starting to look like a team with a future. Not just a future in which something will happen because it must, but a predictable, discernible forward path, with more positives and compartmentalized negatives.

I ask you to look with me past getting handled at Northwestern and another season as the Big Ten’s doormat, and consider the bigger picture.

Imagine a team, next year, that can start Jones and Maurice Creek on either wing, with Jeremiah Rivers at the point and Christian Watford down low. Find ways to get meaningful minutes from some combination of Tom Pritchard, Bawa Muniru, Bobby Capobianco and Derek Elston at the fifth spot, draw solid bench minutes from Jordan Hulls and maybe Matt Roth or one or two of the incoming freshmen, and suddenly, you’ve got a basketball team.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t problems that need fixing, and that others won’t arise along the way. To continue the example, Verdell Jones’ defense needs all kinds of work. Jeremiah Rivers desperately needs to improve his free-throw shooting if he’s going to continue to be a driving point guard that can draw fouls. Tom Pritchard … well, let’s just be honest and say that whole foursome of post players really needs some work.

Slowly but surely, however, a sense of normalcy is returning to Indiana basketball. The catastrophe, the confusion, the utter despair I’m sure some of you felt, it’s quietly subsiding, and we’re actually just left with a regular basketball team with regular basketball team problems, and hope for a better future.

Where this future will take them, I cannot say. Like Verdell Jones, the Hoosiers sit squarely on the fence right now between just possessing some decent talent and actually making legitimate and necessary improvement. But compare that to where this program was four months ago, then tell me how you feel.

It can’t be much worse than last night.

  • http://www.examiner.com/x-32543-Indiana-Hoosiers-Mens-Basketball-Examiner Jared Poertner

    You knew Zach was going to get one last zinger in.

  • Mac

    Looking at the box score, you get the idea that IU didn’t play all around terribly.

    85% free-throw shooting
    8 turnovers to 10 assist and 7 steals
    32 rebounds to 33 for NU
    10 offensive to 7 for NU

    But the glaring difference is the 35% shooting for IU to 52% shooting for NU, along with 11% to 40% on 3′s. Also, that VJ3 had 28 and Watford 16 and everyone else 17 points combined.

    It was mostly poor execution on both sides of the floor, not that they were outmatched. Of course, I’m not sure whether that is something to fell good or bad about.

  • psvirsky

    Thank you for this, it definitely helps. VJIII has really been a joy to watch, especially lately. His improvement throughout his career has been surprising and really great to witness as a fan. Last year he made a significant improvement as the year went on too. Normally you think the younger guys are going to hit a wall at some point (especially skinny frail guys like him), but he's just continued to get better. And he has real courage to step up at the end of games.

    It was funny when he came in and wanted to give himself the nickname of Indiana Jones, but he is really starting to earn the right to nickname himself.

  • http://matthewjenks.blogspot.com/ Matt_J

    Maybe I'm drinking some of the Crean and Crimson Kool-Aid, but I am beginning to expect this team to make some sort of post-season tournament next year. With or without tournament expansion, you can usually get into a post-season tournament with an above .500 record, and things are beginning to look like this team could actually get to a .500 or better record next year.

    Maybe I'm overly optimistic, maybe I'm looking at the program through rose-colored (or crimson-colored) glasses, but I do think that this is a team that could be post-season bound next year.

  • JerryCT

    I agree about the team and the work needed. I always said I thought Jones could be the next Devin Harris. Some folks scoffed at this.

    I think Crean has been impressive in the last several games. He changed the rotation and offensive sets to accommodate it. He knows to play Moore, Dumes, Capo in the right situations. They put out alot of effort and do not quit.

    Transition offense starts with defense and right now however we have only 3 1/2 players that can strongly support a transition offense by their defensively play , Pritchard, Rivers, Dumes and 1/2 Capo. Jones is the worst defender followed by Elston, Watford and Hulls. Creek was not a great defender either.

    As a result when a team has more than one back court player to defend eg McCamey and Richardson , we will have trouble on both ends of the floor. OSU presents that problem in a big big way

  • plane1972

    I'm very happy with the development of VJ3. That blow he sustained at midcourt last season was unfortunate, but does not seem to have set him back. I only hope his vocal leadership is being done with maturity. There are times when I see a lot of sniping on the court, particularly from VJ and Watford. VJ's taking on a pretty hefty leadership role fairly early. Just hope it's not too much, too soon. Somebody's gotta do it, I guess.

  • floridahoosier

    No offense but let's say we go with your philosophy and we have Rivers, Dumes, Capo, Pritchard, and the next best transition defender on the floor where does our offense come from? And to be honest McCamey still tore up rivers and dumes (maybe not always in points but their d definitely did not slow him down in assits, rebounds). My point is this. I like Dumes and his ability to play defense. But for every great hustle play or steal he makes you can bank on an errant pass, a terrible shot selection, or a turnover like a travel. Rivers as in the Purdue game gets to the rim and then instead of making a textbook layup tries to make a wild up and under reverse and it goes into the bottom of the rim. He also has a knack for dribbling to far under and getting lost leading to turnovers. IMO the players you mentioned excellent defense (and I am not denying that they play great defense) is negated by horrible decision making on the offensive end. And as good as defenders as they are none of them are so good that them being in the game would make any difference against a solid one two punch in the big ten

  • Luke72

    Think Jones has even better days coming. Unless we establish a inside game all his heroics might keep us in a few games but under .500 winning average. I do not know of any team that has ever been a top program with one inside player. Watford will be very good. No help on the way either. Get used to the bottom half of the Big Ten. Really hope I'm wrong about this!

  • Taskmaster75

    If you want even more optimism, look at 2 years from now when our upperclassmen are fully developed and Bawa and post buddies can actually give meaningful minutes.

    /drool

  • rusty95

    (especially skinny frail guys like him)

    I remember someone who I thought the exact same thing about, Teyshaun Prince, look how much he improved from feshman year to now. VJ reminds me alot of Prince. Nice, smooth, soft lookin guy, and at the end of the night your mvp.

  • psvirsky

    Nice comparison. Of course, Prince gets to the NBA b/c he also happens to be 6'9. It seems like for this kind of player to succeed, he needs to be able to play down a position in terms of height (so he doesn't get pushed around). So although Prince has the height of a 4, he's better off at the 3, where his length is a significant advantage. For VJIII, at 6'5, he probably wouldn't make it in the NBA unless he puts on weight or learns to play PG. Not that it takes away from what he can do for us.

  • BaseballBuc

    I think I speak for all IU fans out there when I say that we have some major work to do to be a force in the big 10 in coming years. It starts with the little things.

    Our bigs really need some work with their ball handling in the post. Too many times Elston, Capo, Watford, can't handle the post pass or they try to dribble to get to the rim and get stripped.

    Also, our guards need to do a better job of making the extra pass. There were a lot of possessions vs. Northwestern where Hulls was standing wide open in the corner and he never touched the ball.

    Tom Crean has always preached moving with the pass. Once again vs Northwestern they couldn't do it and were a second late closing to the shooters.

    Lastly, I hope we can use more of the 4 guard lineups as long as our guards rebound. The key word being guard rebounds. By looking at the recruiting pattern and his teams at Marquette, I believe Crean is moving in this direction. Thats why he needs the big guards. I think it resembles a lot of what Villanova is doing and has done in the past.

  • http://www.prinsportsblog.com BGleas

    All I'm going to say is, love this post! Great job.

  • JerryCT

    Agreed . I actually was NOT advocating a lineup but only pointing out that unless Jones et al improve on defense we have to limit our optimism about next year…………unless of course we change offensive schemes that donot rely so much on stops. A good perennial example is UCONN.

  • ldiu

    I agree with almost all you say EXCEPT for Rivers at point guard. His turnover ratio and total lack of offense is just plain pitiful. His play just makes me sick at times. Hulls should play more minutes next year. I just hope that none of these key players transfer. I still struggle with the substitution pattern of CTC: a player will play 3-5 minutes and then taken out for no reason that I can see. Why?? He surely cannot be tired.

  • JerryCT

    Here is a clue. Watch our defense not the other teams offense. It expalins:

    1. Why Rivers needs to play many minutes.

    2. Why Jones needs to sit down ( see first 6 possessions by IL in 2nd half )

    3. Why Hulls does not help , in fact, Moore proved this against NW that he is better

    4. Why Watford gives way to Pritchard on Hummel

    5. Why Dumes plays at all

    6. Why Ole Miss killed Creek

    7. Why our transition offense gets stuck in neutral

  • MillaRed

    If we could somehow pull in a top FR or JUCO I think we could contend for a top 3 Big Ten finish. Preferrably a big. But I'm not sure it's going to happen.

    I love the idea of VIII and Creek playing together as long as they figure each other out. When Creek was lighting it up Verdell was taking a back seat. We need both to be equally productive.

    Rivers improvement in his decision making will be a key. I personally am concerned over the possibility. If the old TP comes to play even better.

    I agree, things are settling into place. The subtraction of Dumes and Jobe are additions by subtraction. And if the incoming class can help even better. Very good timing on your post.

    Lastly, can ITH send a 300 volt shock to the keyboard of anyone that posts an unfounded transfer suggestion? It truly is the worst rumor you could possibly spread and the last thing any of us want to hear!

  • JerryCT

    IMO we have alot of offensive skills on the team and they could get even better. Unfortunately the transition game requires tough defense to be efficient……..especially on the perimeter . If I could wish for one thing it would be for Jones, Hulls, Creek, Roth,.etc to work on defensive skills.

    I recognize defense is the most difficult to learn, partly becasue it is no fun to practice it, difficult to practice it and the ordinary fans does not appreciate it. It is still the key however.

    Next game let us see how many times Jones can go over a screen, under a screen or through a screen and not require a monster hedge from Pritchard

  • MillaRed

    I understand your defensive desire Jerry but isn't this really the norm for college hoops these days? Where does the 2010 Kentucky, Kansas, Texas etc. teams match-up defensively compared to top teams over the last 20 years?

    Sure we can get better, but it sounds like you are asking for a combination of VIII offensively and Rivers defensively. I think what you have there is a 1st team all-american. They just aren't out there.

    I'm not disagreeing and have another point. I am up here in Badgerland (look for me at game on the 13th. The only guy with an IU hat I'm sure and I'll chime ITH with a report).

    UW is a great defensive team. They are always challenging for a Big Ten trophy these days and are extremely well coached. You know what else?

    B-O-R-I-N-G.

    It's like watching the Baltimore Ravens when they won the SuperBowl. Hold the ball, defense, hold the ball, defense. The problem is, these guys never go anywhere in the tournament. And yes they had a flukish Final Four run under Dick Bennett but the history is this style of play doesn't go deep and I don't want that brand of basketball at IU.

    I think we're better off focusing on team defense and that will get better with experience.

  • JerryCT

    The only thing separating Jones from All American or All B10 is his defense, same might be true of Creek someday.

    Unlike offensive skills , you cannot practice defense alone or even with 2 guys , it takes 3 because somebody has to be the screener. Making this comittment to improved defense is what we need most………and …….since it fuels the transition offense I think it fits our craving for fun.

    I would certainly look for you at the game but I am leaving in a hour for Brazil and I doubt I will get the game. Hopefully we win, you piss them off good, and only get one black eye and lose a tooth that was loose anyway

  • MillaRed

    I'll do my best Jerry, but it may be difficult.

    These fans are all nice up here, they have a cool coach and will win by 20.

    Still yet, on behalf of all ITH readers, I will do a cart wheel every time we hit a 3 pointer. I'll be lucky to do 4.

    Go Hoosiers!

  • marcusgresham

    I love Jones' offense, and defense will come with strength (I hope!) if he can put on a few pounds. Rivers HAS to develop a shot. This would eliminate a ton of his turnovers, I think, because a lot of times he dribbles into trouble or tries to make a pass he shouldn't because he has not confidence in putting the ball in the basket from outside of 6 feet.
    It would be nice, (and this may happen, I don't live in Bloomington, so I don't know,) if a lot of the old players come back for the summer and pound these guys in pick-up games. I know if VJ3 or Creek spent the summer trying to stop Eric Gordon, Demitri McCamey wouldn't look so tough when the season rolled around. Bawa–who isn't a big stiff & I think has athletic ability if he can gain a better understanding of what he needs to do (and the other big guys) could learn so much from a guy like Kent Benson (not that I think he's going to be in any pick-up games with these guys at his age–no offense, Kent, if you're reading this!) Even someone like AJ Moye could teach some things about defending guys who are bigger than you, effort, taking one for the team… The problem is there probably isn't a lot of recent talent willing to help thanks to the purging brought on by Sampson.
    As far as Matt_J said about post-season next year, I don't think you're drinking Kool-Aid at all. I thought there was shot at it this year. I would think loses to the likes of GMU, Boston U., Loyola, that we saw at the beginning of this year shouldn't occur next season, and a few more conference wins should put the team in the range of say 16-14 (maybe a game or two better.) I know it's not the 25-5 we'd like to see, but it's a 10 game improvement in 2 years, which I think a lot of people lose sight of in terms of being true progress.
    I also think if either of the new guys next year can play defense about as well as Dumes it's a vast improvement because I wouldn't expect either of them to chuck up 26-footers when they have the ball.
    There is a light at the end of the tunnel—let's just hope it isn't that friggin' train on the Purdue logo.

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