John Gasaway is a writer for Basketball Prospectus and is a co-author of the upcoming book, The Basketball Prospectus 2010 Major-Conference Preview. He previously wrote for the Big Ten Wonk. We recently exchanged e-mails with John to help us preview the Big Ten and Indiana because, well, he’s smarter than us. The interview is lengthy, so we’ve split it into two parts. Today: Indiana and The Basketball Prospectus 2010 Major-Conference Preview.
Inside the Hall: Indiana is coming off a tough season and is still in the midst of rebuilding. They were nearly last in the country in turnovers a season ago, which I assume you believe will improve this season because it really can’t get worse. What measurable statistics are most important for Indiana to become a competitive team in a seemingly brutal conference?
JG: Measurable statistic? Points! For and against! No, just kidding. You’re asking about the stats that precede that one, and rightfully so.
Fair enough, try this on for size: If Indiana had been playing in some kind of weird parallel hoops universe last year where turnovers were forbidden and each team’s offense was judged simply according to how well they shoot, hit the offensive glass, and make free throws, your scrappy Hoosiers, even as young as they were, would have ranked a somewhat respectable seventh in the conference in offensive efficiency in Big Ten play (instead of 11th, which is where they really came out). So, yeah, the turnovers were huge.
Moving to defense we find that IU ranked 11th there as well, allowing Big Ten opponents to score 1.12 points per trip. That’s bad, sure, but it’s not catastrophic. In recent years teams like Northwestern and Penn State have on occasion done way worse than that. So there’s hope. In fact the Hoosiers were actually normal when it came to rebounding opponents’ misses–it’s just that, uh, there were no misses. Opponents lit it up from everywhere. This year’s deeper and taller roster should help make that a thing of the past.
ITH: I think a lot of IU fans are excited to see how Tom Crean’s approach will differ this season compared to last. Obviously, the infusion of freshman talent and transfer Jeremiah Rivers will allow more flexibility to try some new things. Schematically speaking, what will be the biggest difference from a season ago?
JG: If Crean’s past is any guide to Indiana’s stylistic future, the really exciting thing to me is that someday soon IU will be the conference’s first moderately up-tempo team, one that goes for steals and, yes, commits an occasional foul. All of the above, along with “guard-heavy,” accurately describes Marquette in 2007-08. I say: Bring on the Hurryin’ Hoosiers! The conference badly needs some diversity where tempo is concerned. When it arrives everyone will wonder what the heck took so long. Playing against a variety of styles over the course of your conference season benefits every team.
ITH: One of the most talked about pieces on this team is Rivers. In fact, I took some heat from our readers a while back for saying I wasn’t completely sold on Rivers being a huge difference maker. His calling card at Georgetown was defense, but offensively he wasn’t very productive as a sophomore (2.5 points, 2.4 rebounds and 1 assist in 18.6 minutes). Was his offensive output more a result of the system he was playing in?
JG: No, not at all. His output on offense would have been meager in any system Georgetown happened to play that year because he was tasked with being a role player on a team with Roy Hibbert and DaJuan Summers. If he’d started confusing himself with Eric Gordon, John Thompson III would have yanked him off the floor in a heartbeat.
Mind you, with my own two eyes I saw Drew Neitzel go from being a meek and deferential role player in support of Mo Ager and Paul Davis to becoming the shot-gobbling–and highly efficient–focal point of Tom Izzo’s offense, so I never say never. Who knows, Rivers might be a scorer waiting only for his chance.
But even if Rivers is “only” a lock-down defender is that really so bad? How many of those are there in the Big Ten heading into this season? Kramer, certainly. And Lighty, assuming he returns whole from his stint on the injured list. But the likes of Travis Walton are gone. So I think Rivers could be a valuable addition even if he’s “merely” what we saw at Georgetown. Not to be repetitive, but Indiana’s defense ranked dead last in the league last year.
ITH: It’s always tough to predict how freshmen will perform, but the six-man class Crean has assembled will be expected to contribute major minutes. What kind of impact do you expect guys like Christian Watford, Maurice Creek, Derek Elston and Jordan Hulls to have?
JG: I know this is heresy in Bloomington, but frankly what an IU fan should hope for is that this group of freshmen jells the way the Hummel-Johnson-Moore group did at Purdue in 2007-08. The impressive thing to me about that particular set of baby Boilers was that they played D and made their threes, neither of which freshmen are supposed to do. And given that both Painter and Crean are proteges of highly defense-aware Big Ten coaches who made their names screaming and getting red and preaching “toughness” as the silver-bullet answer to all of life’s challenges up to and including marriage proposals and home decor, it’s not too much of a stretch to envision a similar dynamic playing out in Bloomington someday.
Not that I expect IU to go 15-3 in the Big Ten this year the way Purdue did in ’08. (Sorry.) I just think if I were a coach I’d point to that particular group of freshmen and say: “Look at those guys. They weren’t especially talented. No one’s in the NBA yet. But look at what they did. See if you can do that.”
ITH: Tell us about your book, The Basketball Prospectus 2010 Major-Conference Preview. How will it differ from last year’s and where will it be available?
JG: Wherever fine books are sold — online. The book will be available at the site in a few days and you’ll be able to choose between downloading it immediately as a pdf or ordering it as an actual book. (Much like the fine NBA book done by my colleagues Bradford Doolittle and Kevin Pelton, currently zooming up the charts at Amazon.)
I previewed the Big Ten, ACC, Big 12, and SEC. An obscure but promising young writer that I’ve graciously agreed to mentor, one Ken Pomeroy, did the Pac-10. I’m telling you this kid’s going places–remember the name, folks! And Dan Hanner of Yet Another Basketball Blog fame had the thankless task of previewing the Brobdingnagian Big East. Last year the instant I finished writing my Big East preview l shot out the door and found myself a hilltop from which to make a Scarlett O’Hara vow: As Jim Boeheim is my witness, never again. Damn thing’s too big.
But of course we’re too nosy to just preview teams. There are all kinds of goodies at the front of the book. For instance Will Carroll has a great and very timely piece on what happens to young legs when top prospects play hoops year-round, as they pretty much all do now. Pelton has become essential reading for anyone interested in draft projections, and he gave us the benefit of that wisdom for the current crop of college prospects. I could go on: Pomeroy, Doolittle, and John Perrotto all chipped in with essays. I did some scribbling in that direction too.
Lastly our Foreword was written by A Very Special Guest. I’m sworn to secrecy but I suspect these dots pretty well connect themselves. Bob Knight? UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon? Numa Numa Guy? Speculate away!
So, yeah, buy my book. I know some members of the self-appointed inside-the-Beltway gotcha media elite have questioned whether I could really write 60K words and edit an additional 60K this fast. Just tell them I say: You betcha! (Your readers can’t see this but I’m winking.)