I'm not going to get into much analysis of Indiana in this preview. It's a largely unchanged team from the last time it played Illinois almost a month ago, and if you missed that one in a New Years Eve daze and want a quick look at what you'll be seeing this afternoon, here was my preview for that game.
The Hoosiers are 2-4 in conference at this juncture, a half game in front of Illinois in the standings. Though they haven't strung together the losses like Illinois has, it's certainly been a disappointment for a young, talented team (cue the Hoosier tears). Indiana took down Wisconsin at the Badgers' apex, but logged the worst loss in conference play when Northwestern won in a (dumpster fire) thriller.
Most preseason predictions had the Hoosiers finishing anywhere between 5th to 8th in conference with most expecting this to be a tournament team. It's not a tournament team right now, and things don't get easier for them on the schedule in the month of February.
For Illinois and its fans, this five-game losing streak has sparked a backpedal. A backpedal on expectations, a backpedal on the level of talent, and maybe if you're crazy enough, a backpedal on the coaching staff. I think this is warranted. There's an absence of talent in crucial areas on this team, and the team's construction (particularly five freshmen bench players) shouldn't stand up to the grueling Big Ten slate. Illinois also preyed on a nonconference schedule that appeared difficult but is proved to be one of the easiest in the nation.
In short, the losing streaking shouldn't be all that unthinkable for Illinois. I don't think you can make that argument with Indiana.
Indiana lost huge pieces from its team last year that garnered a No. 1 seed and a Big Ten Championship. But the roster is still full of blue-chip recruits.
Here's the breakdown of Indiana's 2012 and 2013 recruiting classes by RSCI ranking:
- Yogi Ferrell - No. 25 in the 2012 class
- Jeremy Hollowell - No. 44 in the 2012 class
- Hanner Mosquera-Perea - No. 50 in the 2012 class
- Noah Vonleh - No. 8 in the 2013 class
- Troy Williams - No. 50 in the 2013 class
- Stanford Robinson - No. 61 in the 2013 class
Excuse me, but regardless of their age, that's a great collection of talent. Throw in seniors Will Sheehey and Evan Gordon, and the sum of this team is not matching the potential of its parts. By comparison, Illinois has four players that were ranked in the top-100, and none of them higher than 50.
The only defensible argument is that the players listed above are all freshman and sophomores, short on experience despite all of the talent. But look no further than John Beilein and Michigan to see where this is working. Outside of its platoon of big men that are replacing Mitch McGary, Michigan is a team of moderately-ranked freshmen and sophomores that are lighting up the Big Ten.
Indiana head coach Tom Crean isn't on a hot seat. He brought the program back to prominence last season, and he'll have some years to try to duplicate that success. But somehow this feels symptomatic of his coaching and not underachieving talent.
Its makes me feel at least slightly better about the team at hand. These Illini fight and scrap despite their deficiencies. It's an easier team to root for than some other down years we've witnessed in the past. I'm hoping that's a trickle down effect from the coaching staff.
Because if we're misusing talent in two or three years like this Indiana team is, the future will look bleak.