Top 25 Countdown: No. 1 Indiana Hoosiers

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Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Top 25, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Last Season: 27-9, 11-7 Big Ten (5th); Lost to Kentucky in the Sweet 16

Head Coach: Tom Crean

Key Losses: Verdell Jones III, Matt Roth

Newcomers: Yogi Ferrell, Hanner Mosquera-Perea, Jeremy Hollowell, Peter Jurkin

Projected Lineup:

G: Jordy Hulls, Sr.
G: Victor Oladipo, Jr.
F: Will Sheehey, Sr.
F: Christian Watford, Sr.
C: Cody Zeller, So.
Bench: Maurice Creek, Jr.; Derek Elston, Sr.; Remy Abell, Sr.; Yogi Ferrell, Fr.; Hanner Mosquera-Perea, Fr.; Jeremy Hollowell, Fr.; Peter Jurkin, Fr.

Outlook: Indiana’s back. It’s official. And it’s a long way from being a secret. After winning their first 12 games of the 2011-2012 season — including a memorable, last-second victory over Kentucky — the Hoosiers cruised to 27 wins, a fifth-place finish in the Big Ten and a trip to the Sweet 16.

Much of that success can be attributed to last year’s freshmen class, which was headlined by none other than Preseason Player of the Year Cody Zeller. Zeller’s impact on this team and this program cannot be understated. Let’s forget, for a second, that he averaged 15.6 points and 6.6 rebounds. Let’s forget the 1.4 steals and 1.2 blocks he added. Let’s ignore the 62.3% he shot from the field and the 75.5% he hit from the charity stripe. All that is known. He was a monster last year and is expected to be a Monstar this season.

But what hasn’t been discussed as much is something that I propose we start calling ‘the Zeller effect’. As a sophomore, Christian Watford shot 38.1% from three; as a junior he knocked them down at a 43.7% clip. As a sophomore, Jordy Hulls was a 41.4% three-point shooter; as a junior, he shot 49.3%. Will Sheehey went from 30.4% to 38.3%; Matt Roth went from 37.5% to 54.5%; Derek Elston went from 17.6% to 55.2%. Indiana, as a team, shot 34.6% on just over 17 threes per game in 2010-2011. In 2011-2012, the Hoosiers took just under 15 threes per game and hit them at a 43.1% clip.

It’s obvious that having Zeller would reduce Indiana’s need to rely on threes, especially tough threes at the end of a clock, but what those numbers tell you is that the attention Zeller gets on the block means that the Hoosiers that cannot be left open from beyond the arc are being left open. Zeller may have had just 45 assists last season, but his presence makes everyone else on Indiana that much better.

With essentially everyone from last season returning — Roth and Verdell Jones III are the only players Indiana loses — and a loaded recruiting class coming in this year, the offensive end of the floor should be the least of Tom Crean’s concerns.

Defensively, however, it is a different story. The biggest concern I have about the Hoosiers is that when their best offensive team is on the floor it could end up looking very different than their best defensive team. Hulls struggles to defend at the point guard spot, but he’s a lights-out shooter and the most efficient playmaker on Indiana’s team. Freshman Yogi Ferrell is a better defender, although some of that difference could be mitigated if Ferrell comes along offensively thoughout the year. Oladipo is a shut-down defender, but he only hit 20.8% from deep last year. Maurice Creek, who missed last season after suffering his third major injury and undergoing his third major surgery, has always been able to score, but can his body handle the rigors of the Big Ten? Christian Watford’s ability to shoot gives Zeller space in the paint, but he’s a far-cry from what you would consider a good front court defender.

Indiana is going to score a lot of points this season, but whether or not their defense improves will determine just how good this team ends up being.

The good news for Crean is that he’ll have no shortage of lineup options, as Indiana could feasibly go 13 deep if that was at all possible. I haven’t even mentioned guards Remy Abell and Austin Etherington or big men Jeremy Hollowell, Hanner Mosquera-Perea, Derek Elston or Peter Jurkin yet. Jurkin and Perea have some issues with the NCAA they need worked out still, but all six of those players could end up playing vital roles for the Hoosiers this season.

Predictions?: Naming the Hoosiers the No. 1 team in the country in the preseason means that we believe they are the most likely team to win the national title, but it doesn’t mean Indiana is anywhere near a lock. As much as any season in recent memory, this year is completely wide open. The Hoosiers may be the favorite, but if they can’t fix some of their problems on the defensive end of the floor, they could end up getting picked off in the NCAA tournament by a team that gets hot on the right night.

The other problem that Crean is going to have to deal with is managing egos. There are only going to be so many shots and minutes to go around, which means that someone is going to end up sitting on the bench more than expected and someone else is going to spend a lot of time setting screens or throwing entry passes. Can Crean keep everyone happy even when the rotation tightens in February? What happens if, for example, Ferrell beats out Hulls for the starting point guard spot in the middle of the season?

Crean will have his work cut out for him, but dealing with too much talent is a much better situation than where he was two years ago.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

Bluiett back to Xavier for senior season

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Xavier lost one significant piece to the professional ranks this spring, but will return another.

Trevon Bluiett, the team’s leading scorer last year, announced via social media that he will be back to play his senior season with the Musketeers.

Chris Mack will return the bulk of a roster that struggled February only to make a run to the Elite Eight, but getting Bluiett for a final season makes the Musketeers especially dangerous. The 6-foot-6 Bluiett scored a team-high 18.5 points per game last year while also putting up 5.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists per night. He shot 37.1 percent from 3-point range, the second-best mark on the team. His return, even with point guard Edmond Sumner going pro amid his ACL tear recovery, makes Xavier one of the top teams in the Big East heading into the 2017-18 season.

Bluiett himself is enough to keep Xavier relevant in the league, but when he’s coupled with the likes of returners JP Macura, Sean O’Mara and Quentin Goodwin, plus a recruiting class featuring two four-star prospects, it’s not difficult to see a path for Mack’s group to a place where they can compete with the likes of Villanova and Seton Hall atop the league.

Welsh and Holiday returning to UCLA

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UCLA sustained some major, though expected, attrition from its roster this spring. On Tuesday, the Bruins announced a pair of significant contributors that will be back.

Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holiday will both return next season to the UCLA program, according to the school.

Welsh, a 7-foot center, averaged 10.8 points and 8.7 rebounds as a senior last year for the Bruins. He shot 58.5 percent from the floor and blocked 1.2 shots per game, and decided to declare for the NBA Draft without an agent before ultimately deciding to return to Westwood.

“Thomas has worked hard all spring,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said in a statement. “We supported him testing the NBA waters and are excited to have him returning for his senior year. He simply continues to develop each and every season.

“Thomas will be one of the top centers in college basketball next year and, undoubtedly, has a great chance to be a first-round pick in next season’s draft.”

The 6-foot-1 Holiday averaged 12.3 points and 4.4 assists last season while sharing a backcourt with Lonzo Ball, whose departure, along with those of TJ Leaf, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton will leave UCLA with a very different look next season. The positive results, however, may not fluctuate too significantly with Welsh and Holiday coming back to play alongside two five-star recruits, Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands, as well as Lonzo’s younger brother LiAngelo.

West Virginia’s Macon forgoing final year

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West Virginia’s attempt to dethrone Kansas atop the Big 12 took a bit of a hit Tuesday.

Elijah Macon, a 6-foot-9 forward, announced his decision to forego a fifth year in Morgantown in order to pursue a professional career.

“First things first I would like to say thank you Bob Huggins and Erik Martin for believing in a young 15-year-old boy growing up from the Southside of Columbus, OH losing my mother and still having you guys push me to be the man I have become,” Macon said according to the school. “I can do nothing but thank you for all you and Mountaineer Nation (have) done for me. Unfortunately, I will not be returning for my senior season at WVU and instead sign with a(n) agent and play professional basketball. Thank you guys for all the love and support!”

Macon wasn’t a major contributor for the Mountaineers last season, averaging 6.3 points and 4.2 rebounds in 16 minutes per game, but he was an experienced and tough player who was well-versed in Huggins’ style and demands. Given the pace that the newly-fashioned Press Virginia plays at, depth is also paramount for them as a program.

Macon’s departure, though, may have been expected or at least partly anticipated by West Virginia. The Mountaineers signed five players in its most recent recruiting class, putting them one over their allotment of 13, so something had to give. West VIrginia will stay have interior depth, anchored by junior Esa Ahmad, so the loss of Macon is one they likely can weather, even if it may take some time to acclimate the newcomers.

“Elijah is in the process of completing classes during this summer school period that ends June 2 and will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in August,” Huggins said in a statement released by the school. “I respect his decision to become a professional basketball player and to go make money to support his family. He had a great four years with us, and we wish him nothing but the best.”

Key returning to Alabama for sophomore season

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Alabama’s top scorer is returning to school.

Braxton Key has withdrawn his name from the NBA draft and will be back with the Tide for his sophomore season, the school announced Tuesday.

“I spoke to coach Avery (Johnson) just over a week ago and informed him of my decision to withdraw my name from the NBA Draft and return to the University of Alabama for my sophomore season,” Key said in a statement. “I made that official when I sent my paperwork to the NBA league office Monday morning. I want to express my appreciation to my teammates, Coach Johnson and the entire coaching staff for giving me their full support while I went through this process.

“I am excited for the future of the Alabama basketball program and looking forward to getting to work as we prepare for next season. Roll Tide and Buckle Up!”

The 6-foot-8 forward averaged 12 points and 5.7 rebounds per game while shooting 43.3 percent from the field as a freshman. He gives Alabama four returning starts to pair with one of the country’s highest-regarded recruiting classes, headlined by five-star guard Collin Sexton. The Tide will also have an eligible Daniel Giddens, who previously transferred in from Ohio State.

Key didn’t seem likely to stay in the NBA draft, especially after he wasn’t invited to the combine, but his ultimate decision is a huge one for Avery Johnson as he looks to break through in his third season in Tuscaloosa with his first NCAA tournament appearance. 

Report: Justin Jackson to return to Maryland

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Maryland forward Justin Jackson is expected to return to school for his sophomore season, according to a report from FanRag Sports.

Jackson is an intriguing talent, a 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-3 wingspan that shoots 44 percent from three. But he’s also still developing his offensive game and consistency on the defensive end of the floor, which is why he was projected as a second round pick in this year’s draft.

With Jackson back in the fold, Maryland is a borderline top 25 team. They lost Melo Trimble to the professional ranks, but that’s something that Mark Turgeon has prepared for. With a sophomore class that also includes highly-regarded point guard Anthony Cowan and sharp-shooter Kevin Huerter, the Terps have a promising season ahead of them.