Editor’s Note: This month, ESPN Insider’s college basketball and recruiting experts are teaming up to examine how 15 of the nation’s best recruiting classes will fit in with their teams in the 2013-14 season. Today's featured program: Indiana. Check out the Nation blog each morning for a corresponding post on the key returnee for each of the 15 teams.
Finally, Indiana basketball is getting a fresh start.
Two years ago, the Hoosiers' Sweet 16 appearance was a catharsis, a happy and unexpected bonus after a brutal top-to-bottom rebuilding of a once-storied program. The 2012-13 season was fraught with national title expectations and no small amount of pathos: Senior starters such as Jordan Hulls and Christian Watford, both of whom committed to Indiana during its worst post-Kelvin Sampson days, intensely chased the ideal bookend to their careers; underclassmen stars such as Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo, so important to IU's resurgence, could only be kept from the NBA draft for so long. Everything Indiana did seemed to have at least some physic relationship to the program's Tom Crean-constructed rebirth. How could it not?
When the No. 1-seeded Hoosiers lost to Syracuse in the Sweet 16, fans were apoplectic and disappointed and all of the other things fans are supposed to be when their No. 1-seeded team loses in the NCAA tournament. There was none of the back-slapping, "Hey, we'll take it!" giddiness that characterized 2012. To a fan base traumatized by a decade of sheer weirdness, watching Syracuse's 2-3 zone methodically stifle the first IU team in history to feature four 1,000-point scorers must have felt like a once-in-who-knows-how-long opportunity had been squandered. The mass freakout proceeded apace.
For as disappointing as March may have been, there is another way to view Indiana's current post-cellar transition: It's the first time the Hoosiers can make a complete break from the rebuilding narrative that has defined them since 2008. It's a step into a far more sane future. It's the first chance for Indiana to just be Indiana.
That doesn't mean expectations will disappear. To the contrary, Hoosier fans have tasted what's possible under Crean. They'll want more.
Whether they get it right away, just one season after losing all that talent, is a different question entirely -- one that will hinge most heavily on the performance of rising sophomore point guard Yogi Ferrell.
As you'd expect from a team with that much turnover, the Hoosiers will be young in 2013-14. Senior wingman Will Sheehey will provide experience in his first crack at a starting role, and Arizona State graduate exception transfer guard Evan Gordon can play on the perimeter right away. But six freshmen and four sophomores will likely consume a wide swath of Indiana's roster and minutes. The most experienced among them -- Jeremy Hollowell and Hanner Mosquera-Perea -- are still in the early decimals of their development curves. The most talented of IU's freshmen, Noah Vonleh, truly is talented; he is currently ranked No. 13 in the loaded 2013 incoming class, and has spent much of his prep career ranked in the top 10. But he's also notably raw, and still growing both literally and metaphorically.
The biggest key to making all of these pieces work right away is Ferrell.
As a freshman, Ferrell entered a lineup with star veterans and a massive amount of pressure and handled all of it like an old pro. His numbers were just OK -- a 105.3 offensive rating, a 25.7 assist rate -- but for what Indiana needed, a guard to push the pace and start the offense, Ferrell performed admirably. In the process, he showed flashes of much more to come.
For Indiana to contend for a Big Ten title and position itself for a deep run in the NCAA tournament, Ferrell will have to be a star. Even in Indiana's ball-movement offense, Ferrell will have the ball in his hands more frequently than any other player. He'll have to do everything well: He'll still have to be a capable distributor and ballhandler, but he'll also have to put the ball in the hoop.
The latter was chief among Ferrell's weaknesses last season. He shot just 30.3 percent from 3-point territory and 45.3 percent on 2-pointers. (Not that it mattered: Pretty much every other Indiana regular was immensely efficient, and IU finished the season with the nation's second-most-efficient offense.) Ferrell's quickness in transition and ability to finish at the rim made him effective in the aggregate, but the shooting also made him the frequent target of defenses picking their poison.
It goes without saying that to be a better scorer, Ferrell has to be a much better jump-shooter, particularly off the dribble. According to Synergy Sports Technology scouting data, Ferrell scored just 34 points on 51 possessions that ended with a jump shot off the dribble. He scored 86 points in 102 overall jump-shot possessions.
But that's not all. Ferrell can beat most defenders off the dribble, particularly with the help of a screen. For as much focus as the outside shooting will draw, IU needs Ferrell to get to the rim, finish with contact, and get to the foul line. The Hoosiers have drawn fouls at a high rate in each of the past two seasons, and Crean is hardly eager to forfeit that part of his offensive attack.
Ferrell also turned the ball over too frequently, on 24.5 percent of his possessions. Ferrell's passing was anecdotally brilliant all season long, but the mistakes could occasionally outweigh the benefits.
The past few paragraphs might have felt like a nitpicky list of things Ferrell did wrong as an otherwise-impressive freshman. That would be missing the point. The fact is, Ferrell is talented enough to put all of these qualities together into one package -- the point guard who can run the break, score efficiently both inside and out, and get his talented but raw teammates the ball in favorable positions. That all of this could reasonably be expected of him in just his sophomore season is a testament to that talent. High expectations are a compliment.
Projecting Indiana next season will be difficult. Any number of outcomes are on the table. Is IU good enough to compete for a Big Ten title right away? Or is this a traditional transition season, a solid, promising campaign that sets the table for something more?
What we do know is this: If the former scenario is in play, it's because Ferrell will take the lead.
In the meantime, Indiana fans can sit back, enjoy the development of exciting young talent, shake off a decade of anxiety, and start thinking more about the future than the past. Because the future, whether in 2013-14 or beyond, is bright.