FORT WAYNE – The Indiana men’s basketball team will have a different complexion next season, led by six incoming freshmen who fit a similar billing.
Long. Athletic. Versatile. Take your pick of a future Hoosier, and those words apply to varying degrees.
The squad will look a lot like coach Tom Crean’s teams at Marquette, where he went to a Final Four.
There is a major difference, though, and one that could be either a problem or its own solution: Many of the members of next year’s team play the same position, or project to be there.
The team’s biggest challenge will be to figure out how to connect so many similarly shaped pieces into a perfect puzzle.
A lot of us can guard the post, guard guards and we can cover a lot of the floor, said one of the newcomers, Warren Central’s Devin Davis.
I think we’re all ready. We all know what’s at stake. We all know how the year went last year, so we want to get further than the Sweet 16, and we all know what kind of work ethic we’re going to have to have.
Davis, a 6-foot-7 forward, has a high motor and can play inside and outside. So can Oak Hill (Va.) guard Troy Williams, and Cathedral forward Collin Hartman, and New Hampton (N.H.) forward Noah Vonleh.
For those four, as well as combo guard Stan Robinson of Findlay Prep (Nev.) and Germantown (Wis.) big man Luke Fischer, the summer and fall will be about finding a role within the spaces on a team that has one upperclassman, but plenty of current players vying for starting spots.
With four departing starters – Christian Watford, Jordan Hulls, Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo – competition is wide open across the lineup. Point guard Kevin Yogi Ferrell and senior forward Will Sheehey have essentially locked up starting spots, but the rest are up for grabs.
Whether that becomes an issue or an opportunity depends entirely on the attitudes of the current roster and the Hoosiers that will hit Bloomington this summer.
Robinson thinks the incoming freshmen are ready to challenge the veterans from Day 1. Regardless of whether they start or come off the bench, most – if not all – of the six are expected to contribute right away.
I think the biggest thing is just our strength, Robinson said. We all need to get in the weight room continuously because, you know, Big Ten basketball is very physical – it’s a very physical league.
I think skill-wise, we’re ready.
It’s a lofty statement but founded in the potential these six players have.
Headlined by Vonleh, a consensus top-10 player in the class of 2013, this signing class is regarded as the No. 6 group in the nation by the 247Composite, a service by 247Sports.com that compiles the rankings of four major recruiting sites – Rivals.com, Scout.com, ESPN.com and itself – into one ranking.
Williams (51), Robinson (65) and Fischer (94) are top-100 prospects, according to the composite, while Davis (161) and Hartman (228) also crack the Top 247.
And they all can play multiple positions.
I’ll do whatever I have to do, Williams said at the Derby Basketball Classic on April 19 that featured all of IU’s incoming players but Vonleh. I’ll play inside, like the four. I’ll play outside. If I have to, I’ll bring the ball up like we saw out here today.
Robinson could play shooting guard and back up Ferrell at the point. Davis and Hartman could see time at small forward and power forward. Vonleh could play the two, three or four. And Fischer, at 6-foot-11, is a solid option at power forward or as a replacement for Zeller at center.
It’s a good problem for Crean to have. The group is made up of players who can run the floor well for their positions and create mismatches.
If we play a smaller team, we can go smaller and still stay with them, Fischer said. If we’re playing a bigger team, we can go big. So any team that comes up against us, I think we can handle it.
The question, then, is if Indiana can handle itself. And Fischer, like the others, knows that could be a problem with a young squad that lacks a true leader.
The veteran group that came up short in the Sweet 16 in March had an identity from the first tip in 2012 to the final one against Syracuse. This team doesn’t, and crafting a winning combination will be a process.
I think the same roles are going to be filled with new players, Fischer said. We’re definitely going to be a lot younger, no doubt about it. The leadership is not going to all be there, and younger guys are going to have to step up. I guess that’s the big thing.
Some new, and some old, will have to step up or back down and not let egos get in the way.
Luckily for Crean’s Hoosiers, the incoming players seem to have the right attitude now.
When I get down there, I just have to find my niche and do whatever the coach asks me to do, Davis said.
Whether that carries over to open gyms and the first practices, for Davis and the others, will set the tone for a season loaded with potential – both good and bad.