The college basketball season isn't that far off. So it's time to start looking at the important questions that will shape this season.
Indiana center Thomas Bryant let out a scream, pumped his fist and briefly flexed at no one in particular in Cameron Indoor Stadium last season. And all that was for his first-half assist on a half-court pass to Troy Williams for a dunk. While Bryant was enjoying a euphoric adrenaline rush from the Hoosiers’ early lead at Duke, senior guard Yogi Ferrell gave him a glance as if to say, Calm down.
Bryant never totally learned how, and that could be a very good thing for Indiana this season. He puts so much into the game, shows so much emotion on the floor, that even a spectator watching him needs a moment to catch a breath. He’s that energetic, or depending on your perspective, that exhausting. He’s equally unapologetic about being the Hoosiers’ hype man. It’s the edge he needs to play to his potential. Will it be enough to help Indiana break its Final Four drought?
The Hoosiers haven’t made the Elite Eight, much less the Final Four, since Mike Davis coached them to the national championship game in 2002. In the last 50 years, it is Indiana’s longest span without making college basketball’s final weekend since going without from 1992-2002. The Hoosiers thought the 2012-13 team, led by Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo, would be the team to break that streak. But they flamed out as a No. 1 seed in the Sweet 16 against Syracuse.
If Indiana is to keep from having a 15th straight season end short of the Final Four, Bryant will likely be a major reason why. His name is appearing on many preseason All-America projections. And his presence will likely make Indiana a top-20 team when the season begins.
The 6-foot-10 sophomore largely deferred to Williams and Ferrell last season. But Bryant's NCAA tournament performance gave a hint of what he will be this season. In Indiana's win versus Kentucky in the second round, Bryant led IU with 19 points and five rebounds, even providing key free throws late in the game. After the Hoosiers' loss to North Carolina in the Sweet 16, Bryant took on a leadership role, consoling his teammates on the bench.
Williams and Ferrell are no longer on campus. Even with the return of guard James Blackmon Jr., who averaged 15.8 points per game through the first 13 games last season before being sidelined with an injured right knee, Bryant has a chance to change the dynamic of how the Hoosiers play.
Indiana launched 3-pointers without a second thought last season. IU was second to Michigan in the Big Ten, averaging 23.7 3-point attempts per game. IU also led the league in scoring 38 percent of its points from behind the arc and ranked next to last with 45 percent of its points from 2-point baskets, according to KenPom.com.
Bryant, who averaged 11.9 points and 5.8 rebounds last season, set a school record for single-season field goal percentage, making 68.3 percent of his attempts. His presence in the paint could help flip the ratio of 3s and 2s. The Hoosiers' first thought on offensive possessions this season will likely be to throw it to Bryant on the block and work inside out. He could become Indiana's centerpiece this year in scoring, rebounding and leadership.
Zeller was the last IU player to lead the team in scoring and rebounding when he did it in consecutive seasons (2011-12 and 2012-13). Unlike Zeller, Bryant will have a much deeper frontcourt surrounding him, which could take some of the pressure off. Sophomore forward O.G. Anunoby is one of the most intriguing talents in the nation. He’s expected to make a similar leap that Oladipo once made from role player to bona fide star.
Sophomore forward Juwan Morgan played most of last season hobbled by injuries, but he still managed to carve out a niche as a defensive stopper. Senior Collin Hartman is a career 40 percent 3-point shooter whose versatility will allow coach Tom Crean to give the frontcourt a different look. Freshman De'Ron Davis has a knack for blocking shots and could become the Hoosiers' best rim protector.
They will all be fueled by the man in the middle. Bryant could potentially rival Zeller as the Hoosiers’ best big man in the post-Bob Knight era. Sure, he had a chance to leave IU after one season, as Noah Vonleh did in 2014 when he became the ninth overall pick in the NBA draft. Despite the new rules that would have allowed Bryant to work out with NBA teams and potentially be invited to the combine, he didn’t declare for the draft. He knew he wanted to return to school. Now it’s the Hoosiers faithful who can’t calm down thinking about Bryant’s potential impact.