I’m so tempted to just close the books on this season and look forward. Forward to better days. Forward to a better team. Forward to an Indiana team that feels like an Indiana team.
Forward is so much more appealing than back. But we have to put a close on this season before allowing ourselves the luxury of focusing on a time when a loss in the first round of the Big Ten tournament doesn’t provide the sweet relief that Johnny felt on a dirty mattress in an abandoned building in Hamsterdam.
Adam’s point about the talent level of the team is a good one, he says that we have five guys who would play for other Big Ten teams. But I’d like to make a more nuanced point. Of the five (and I’m adding a sixth player to be named shortly to his subtly redacted list) how many would have held the same role on another (I was going to write “, better” in this sentence, but it strikes me that finishing dead last makes that addendum unnecessary and redundant) Big Ten team?
The answer is three, each with conditions. It’s our general policy in the Hoosierverse not to dump on a bunch of college kids, but I’m not dumping, in fact I’m largely going to be positive about the three people below, so I’m dispensing with the identity protection.
The first is Jordan Hulls. Jordy is the Lester Freeman of this team. You wouldn’t know it to look at him, but he’s the guy you want on your team running the show. He would start for almost any team in the Big Ten, he would handle the ball on most possessions because he makes good decisions, can create his own shot under certain circumstances and is such a tough-minded player that he’d rise to the top on any other team. He might not be the primary offensive option, but he wasn’t really that for us this year either. He would be a better player and a bigger offensive threat if the defenses he was playing against didn’t look at the other four people on the court and know for certain they didn’t have to guard half of them. And the defensive liability that his size can be would be balanced with teammates more able and willing to play good help defense.
The second is Christian Watford. Christian is McNulty, without the self-destructive tendencies. He’s guy with the most innate talent who hasn’t realized it yet. He doesn’t always play like he’s the best guy on your team, but he is and when he comes to play, he’s your first, best option.
With his size and length, Christian would have been a scoring threat and primary option on any team in the Big Ten, and had he not broken his hand when he was playing his best ball of the season, that would be more obvious than it is now. He likely would have played even more wing than he did this year. Imagine him on a team with a post player half as good as Sullinger, where he’d be able to stay out of the post almost completely. Christian has the ability to show the kind of late career improvement that turned DJ White into the Big Ten player of the year.
It’s easy to forget, after watching DJ dominate in his senior year, that his career was one of growth and improvement. He went from 4.9 RPG his freshman year to 10.3 RPG his senior year and his points per game jumped from 13.8 as a junior to 17.3 as a senior. Some of that was due to the improved talent around him in 2008, but most of it was DJ getting bigger, stronger and better. Christian can do the same thing. And the talent level is set to rise around him more than it’s ever risen around any player in IU history. But that’s looking forward and I promised myself, and you the teeming masses, that I wasn’t going to do that.
The third may surprise you, but it’s Jeremiah Rivers. Jeremiah is Pryzbylewski. He’s better at his job than you think he is, because sometimes he shoots the brick walls in your office, but he found a niche and excelled there. His problem was when he tried to step out of that role. And, like Prez, it requires the right support around him to make him his best.
As a senior, he would likely have started or been the sixth man on most teams in the Big Ten in EXACTLY the same role. It’s the same role Mike Dunleavy brought Jared Jeffries back to New York to play this year. JJ was brought back to New York from Houston where he sat on the bench and rarely played this season. In New York, he’s back in the starting lineup, playing the role he’s best suited for in the NBA; a defensive stopper who’s not allowed to shoot unless he’s under the basket all by himself.
The problem for this team and for Jeremiah is that there was no room on this team for a guy in that role. Imagine if Prez was thrown on that detail with only Carver and Herc. There weren’t enough pieces around him to make it OK for us to trade what we got from him on defense for what he cost us on offense, namely a player that defenses could completely sag off of, making it harder for the other players to get good shots. You put a player with his skill set on any other Big Ten team and he would have been defensive first team all-Big Ten (does the Big Ten give that award? I don’t feel like looking it up, but if they did he would have been on it).
That’s it. That’s the list. The other three guys on Adam’s list would be playing either less, or in different roles because they would have been paired with more talent at the other positions. That’s not to say that I don’t really like those other three guys and think that they’ll be able to really help this team in the next few years.
But, when you’ve got three guys on your team who would be playing similar roles on better teams, you’ve got some idea why they came up short of expectations this year.
I’ve more to say to wrap up the year, I think. So, maybe looking forward will have to wait just a little.