Two weeks into the season, the Indiana Hoosiers look as though they are deserving of their consensus No. 1 ranking in the country. They have talent, players who are buying into their roles, an offensive philosophy that gives players freedom to play in transition, a commitment to executing in the half court and a renewed commitment to getting consecutive defensive stops. They also have arguably the best player in the nation in the "Big Handsome," Cody Zeller.
Coach Tom Crean had a vision and a plan to return Indiana to college basketball's elite, and the results of that plan will be on display this season. He and his staff have done an excellent job of evaluating and developing players, and what makes the Hoosiers so special is that all of their pieces fit together very well.
Let's take a look at what makes Indiana the best team in the country and examine the areas in which the Hoosiers will need to improve in order to end the season as the nation's top team.
What makes Indiana No. 1?
When putting together a roster, it's important to build it with a strong perimeter. Crean's perimeter players complement each other well.
Jordan Hulls is a fierce, tough competitor, has a high basketball IQ, feeds the post well and, despite his size (6-foot, 182 pounds), is hard to screen. This toughness will serve him well when playing the 2. Also, his ability to shoot the ball with range forces defenses to find him early in transition, which opens the floor for Zeller to be a rim runner and creates driving lanes for Will Sheehey and Victor Oladipo.
Oladipo is a high-energy athlete who can defend any perimeter position. He has great anticipation and reads passing lanes well, and is explosive getting to the basket off the bounce and in transition. His athletic ability and speed enable him to get downhill off of ball screens, which puts defenses in rotations, creates kickouts and offensive rebounding opportunities. His ability to rebound is important, as that is an area that could be an Achilles' heel for the Hoosiers.
Sheehey is all about winning, and his willingness to embrace the sixth-man role makes him unique in today's college basketball culture. He plays the game with passion and a reckless abandon that is contagious. At 6-7, Sheehey is big enough and tough enough to defend frontcourt players while also being athletic enough to defend perimeter players. He is another player who must help rebound the ball. A high-percentage shooter, Sheehey can get to the rim and has an excellent middle game.
Yogi Ferrell is the missing piece to the Hoosiers' perimeter foundation. He elevates the Indiana defense to the next level with his ability to defend the basketball at the point of attack. This is an area that Indiana struggled with at times last season. He is active, quick and tough. Offensively, he attacks pressure, is quick with the ball and can get in the lane and create for his teammates. Hulls will be the beneficiary of Ferrell's ability to penetrate and shrink the defense.
Christian Watford is the one of the largest (6-9, 232) and most important pieces to the Hoosiers' puzzle. He is a tough matchup and late in games is the Hoosiers' go-to player. Extremely versatile, Watford has the ability to score or get fouled in the low block, and also shoot the 3-pointer off of pick-and-pop or roll-replace ball-screen action. He must be a committed rebounder against the best teams for Indiana to make a run to a national championship.
Of course, Zeller is the centerpiece. He is big (7-0, 240) and his game is complete. He runs the floor as hard as any frontcourt player in college basketball, which puts great pressure on the defense. Plus, he has great hands and is effective on the baseline, can score over either shoulder, is an excellent ball-screen player and is an active and alert defender.
What do the Hoosiers have to improve upon?
I cited the need for several Hoosiers players to be committed rebounders in order for this Indiana team to be successful this season. That's because one of the Hoosiers' weaknesses from a season ago was their inability to bring consistent rebounding and defensive intensity every game -- and it really affected their ability to win on the road (six of IU's seven regular-season losses were away games).
The Hoosiers' offense will be one of the most efficient units in the nation, but even for a team as talented as this one, there will be nights when its offense will struggle and it will need to get stops and finish possessions with a defensive rebound. That will have to happen more this season for Indiana to win a Big Ten title and national championship.
Along the same lines, the Hoosiers' undersized backcourt, when Indiana plays Ferrell at the point and Hulls at the 2, could present issues on the defensive end. Both players are 6-feet, which is something opponents could look to exploit.
Lastly, the injury to senior Derek Elston leaves the Hoosiers with limited frontcourt depth to start the season. When Zeller is in the game, this won't be an issue, but how will IU replace him if he gets in early foul trouble?
It's not hard to see that something special is happening in Bloomington. Crean has found a winning formula with a group of unselfish players who compete, play to win, respect what one another brings to the table and look like the most complete team in the nation. The only question is whether the Hoosiers can improve upon their few weaknesses to become the elite team in college basketball this season.