THE CRAZY START OF INDIANA BASKETBALL

Has any college basketball team in the country had a wilder start to the season than the Indiana Hoosiers. They opened with a game against Kansas on a military carrier and pulled out a 103-99 overtime win. Earlier this week, the Hoosiers knocked off defending NCAA runner-up North Carolina 76-61. In between, they paid a visit to a little IP-Fort Wayne and went home with an overtime loss. Who are the real Hoosiers?

It’s a pertinent question, because it’s not often that a team capable of knocking off two national powers this quickly is priced at a long 40-1 to win the national championship. In fact, Indiana’s wins over Kansas and North Carolina have barely registered with the market. IU opened the season at 35-1, indicating the only notice they’ve gotten is when they took their upset loss.

But there are good reasons to think the reverse might be true. Indiana won the Big Ten title by two games last year and then beat Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament. Even though the Hoosiers lost their terrific point guard Yogi Ferrell, it was overlooked that they were getting James Blackmon back. Blackmon missed most of last season with a knee injury, but he’s back with a vengeance—to the tune of 19 ppg.

Blackmon is the focal point of a backcourt that has good outside shooters. His 47% shooting percentage from three-point range is impressive enough on its face. It becomes more so when you consider he shoots nearly eight treys a game. Robert Johnson is another guard who can shoot the three-ball and so can Pitt transfer Josh Newkirk.

Where Indiana really has potential to separate themselves from other contenders though is up front. A year ago, 6’10” center Thomas Bryant was one of the country’s highly touted recruits, a potential one-and-done. His freshman year showed Bryant needed a bit more maturity—some more nastiness and a take-charge attitude down low before he went to the NBA. But he was still a good college freshman, averaging 11 points/5 rebounds. Those numbers have bumped to 13/8 this season and his ten rebounds against Kansas keyed the rebounding advantage that won the game for IU.

Bryant isn’t alone underneath. O.G. Anunoby is 6’8”, can go to the boards and also step out and hit the three in a stretch-4 role. Juwan Morgan is 6’7” and averages six rebounds a game. In a college basketball world that’s mostly gone small, a team that can show 6’10”, 6’8” and 6’7” across its front line is in position to control the paint most nights.

There’s also a good argument for just writing off the loss to Fort Wayne as one of those nights. The Mastodons are a rising program that has an excellent chance of getting the Summit League bid to the NCAA Tournament. Nor was this the usual case of the power conference refusing to go on the road—the Hoosiers actually went into Fort Wayne. Playing a talented team in their own building, early in the season, when they’re hungry to pull an upset is a recipe for the kind of loss Indiana suffered. But that doesn’t make it a long-term concern.

What does need to be watched closely is Indiana’s defense. This has been a problem in recent seasons under Tom Crean and the Hoosiers won’t seriously compete for a national title until they start playing the kind of defense that the school’s great legend Bob Knight would be proud of. That’s what made it heartening to see Indiana hold North Carolina to sub-40 percent shooting.

If that kind of defensive effort can sustain itself in the Big Ten schedule, Indiana will be a threat to win six in a row at the NCAA Tournament. And that makes that 40-1 price tag awfully attractive.

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