Looking ahead: Thomas Bryant's return could fuel promising Indiana

The defining image of Indiana's 2015-16 season came mere minutes after that season was over.

A week earlier, freshman center Thomas Bryant had sent hated once-and-future rival Kentucky home with 17 second-half points, with game-sealing free throws and with an emphatic postgame flex. He had turned to Indiana's fans, flexed his ferocious 6-foot-10, 250-pound, future-first-round-pick frame and screamed: "This is why I'm here!"

Now Bryant was limp, slumped in a chair, crying his eyes red. No one in Indiana's locker room was more devastated by the Hoosiers' 101-86 Sweet 16 loss to that night's near-perfect North Carolina, and despite his size and his game and all the money that combination would one day make him, Bryant was, for the moment, just an inconsolable kid. He leaned onto coach Tom Crean's shoulder. He cried.

The gut punch of a photo that resulted stood in stark contrast to the outright Big Ten champions' otherwise giddy season. Yet it nonetheless explained the reasons for that success: Behind the Hoosiers' gorgeously precise offense and steadily improved defense lay a deep reservoir of mutual feeling that only the rawest moment could reveal.

Two weeks later, Bryant announced his decision to return for his sophomore season. On paper, a likely first-round pick turning down millions qualifies as a genuine surprise. For Bryant -- for the Bryant leaning on Crean in that locker room chair, at least -- it made perfect sense.

It also, not for nothing, offered the biggest reason to expect the 2016-17 Hoosiers to meet or exceed the feel-good story they wrote throughout the early months of 2016.

Given their sheer personnel losses, that would be no small feat. Chief among those is senior point guard Yogi Ferrell, who left the storied program this spring among its most accomplished individuals ever. Ferrell was the only player in IU history to lead the team in assists for all four of his seasons; he's also IU's all-time leader in assists, sixth in career scoring and first in games played and started.

Come to think of it, those numbers -- like "chief among those" -- don't exactly do Ferrell's departure justice. He was IU's heart and soul, a bona fide leader, and the dual scoring and passing threat who made Indiana's pace-and-space offense of the past two seasons so impossible to defend. Losing him is devastating.

Which is no disrespect to fellow seniors Max Bielfeldt (a classic glue guy who made big shots all season and defended, rebounded and scored around much bigger players pretty much every minute he was on the floor) and Nick Zeisloft (a lights-out catch-and-shoot threat). That may not be all, either: Uber-athletic, outside-in rim-attacker Troy Williams put his name into the NBA draft without hiring an agent, which initially left open the possibility of his return. Lately, though, it's looking more and more like Williams will stay in, according to Crean.

Fortunately, thanks to consistently solid (often better than solid, and occasionally just plain great) recruiting by Crean, IU can lose players like Ferrell and Williams and still look relatively loaded in the backcourt. Robert Johnson has been in many ways the silent partner in Indiana's backcourt the past two seasons, and his role will now rightfully expand. James Blackmon Jr. is a lethal perimeter scorer who was efficient in high volumes as a freshman and shooting it even before before an ACL injury ended his sophomore season in December. (Blackmon, who won't be cleared for 5-on-5 play until July, is also currently in the draft, but in an apparent fact-finding sense only; the overwhelming expectation is that he will be back.) Up front, Collin Hartman will continue to stretch defenses up the floor with his shooting and punish them with pinpoint backdoor cuts. Juwan Morgan got quality minutes as a freshman.

And then, of course, there's O.G. Anunoby, the most tantalizing and fascinating player on IU's roster. There's a genuine chance Anunoby will go down as the greatest recruiting coup of Crean's career, a career that includes plucking Dwyane Wade and Victor Oladipo from relative high school obscurity. A born Londoner raised in Missouri, Anunoby was an unknown prospect when Crean first saw him play; he offered him a scholarship soon thereafter anyway. Less than two years later, Anunoby, as a 6-foot-7 freshman, was throwing down a 360-degree dunk in an NCAA tournament game two days before guarding -- and legitimately stopping! -- Kentucky star Jamal Murray. There are very few college players who learn the game on the fly like this, who can somehow look raw and Bambi-awkward even as they're doing crazy-impressive things. Former Kansas center Joel Embiid was one of those guys. Anunoby is, too. (Or he's a cyborg. Let's not rule that out.)

Yet, despite all that, Bryant's return was the biggest deal of IU's offseason. In one fell swoop, a stretchy, slightly undersized frontcourt became one of the nation's best, and a promising roster became one capable of recovering from the loss of Ferrell (and likely Williams).

It's hard not to trace the origin of Bryant's decision, and thus IU's entire 2016-17 outlook, back to that moment when North Carolina's offensive explosion, and the finality of the loss, was too much for Bryant to shoulder alone.

"This game right here gives me a lot of motivation," Bryant said then, biting his lip to fight back tears. "Just, this one right here … it fuels me."

It will fuel Indiana, too. In at least one way, it already has.