KRAVITZ: Next on the Hoosiers' to-do list: Find a big man

Yogi Ferrell (November 2014 WTHR file photo)
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Bob Kravitz

Yogi Ferrell has a big job, assuming he doesn't make the mistake of declaring himself eligible for the NBA draft in the next couple of weeks.

Help recruit Tom Crean and his teammates a game-changing big man. A Thomas Bryant. A Thon Maker. Somebody with bulk and height and a deft touch around the rim. Because, let's be honest, the only thing that keeps IU from winning games like this one, an 81-76 loss to Wichita State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, is a presence in the middle.

“When our recruits come in, they always come in the locker room and say, 'Hey'," Ferrell said after a noble 24-point effort helped the Hoosiers nearly upset Wichita State.

I told Ferrell he needs to say more than that. Needs to recruit. Hard.

“I'll work on that,'' he said with a broad smile.

Yeah, I think he's already worked on that. Ferrell knows what we all know: This Indiana team, one of the youngest in the NCAA Tournament, is not that far away. They've got drivers/slashers. They've got shooters. They've got a playmaker in Ferrell – more on his future later in this column. But they can't win consistently, not in the Big Ten and not in the NCAA Tournament, without a reasonably effective big man. If only Noah Vonleh hadn't been a one-and-done player. If only Luke Fischer hadn't returned back to his home in Wisconsin. If only...

Here's the one game-day statistic that flies off the page: Wichita State had 44 points in the paint. And this is a Shockers' team whose biggest starter is 6'7". Time after time, guard Fred Van Vleet drove to the basket unencumbered, the Hoosiers playing passively because A) that's how they play and B) they were in deep foul trouble all game.

"The second half, we wanted to stay in man and speed them up," Stanford Robinson said. "But once we got in foul trouble early [in the second half], we had to go zone. Then it became hard to match up on the boards."

We saw this all season, especially when things started going sideways after the high-water mark Jan. 22. We saw the lack of defense, the worst in the Big Ten, especially the inept transition defense which was at its worst through stretches of the second half. We saw the lack of a post presence, nobody who could score inside, nobody who could guard the rim defensively. And we saw the turnovers, killing turnovers, turnovers at exactly the wrong times.

"Those were on me," Ferrell said of his ball insecurity. "That's the one thing I want to work on next season is my assists-to-turnovers ratio."

Not only are the Hoosiers lacking in height and bulk, but the few big people they do have spent all afternoon in foul trouble. Collin Hartman had a terrific game, but played just 17 minutes because of fouls. Emmitt Holt played just six minutes. Hanner Mosquera-Perea, who was only supposed to play limited minutes because of an injury, was forced to play 19 minutes. Neither Holt nor Mosquera-Perea was particularly effective.

"The biggest difference was the points in the paint," Tom Crean said. "When we've been able to keep that under control this year, we've been better and when we haven't, that's where we've struggled."

In a way, this loss was a microcosm of the season at large, or at least the last two months of the season. At times, the Hoosiers looked good, engaged and sharp, and literally had Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall sweating and screaming at his assistants: "What do you want me to do??!!!! [Ron] Baker is getting his ass kicked!!" But they couldn't maintain their preferred style of play, both because of foul trouble and because, well, they're just not that advanced a team just yet.

And when guard Fred Van Vleet started getting to the basket, often without much resistance, it was over. Van Vleet finished with a career-high 27 points, most of those scores coming on drives to the hoop.

Which has to make Hoosiers fans nuts, and make them wonder: Why couldn't IU have had this group of shooters around Vonleh one year ago? What kind of team would they be now with Vonleh and this group of snipers? Life is all about timing, isn't it?

"We needed to be more up in our defensive coverages," Ferrell said. "We shouldn't have had the bigs so far back where he [Van Vleet] could attack our feet. He's very good at doing that. We need to be more up on the drive screen and take away the angles."

We've heard some version of this – what? – a thousand times this season? They weren't a good defensive team all season. They weren't a particularly good defensive team, especially in the paint, in Friday's loss. And that's not likely to change until and unless the Hoosiers recruit themselves a big man who is an upgrade on inconsistent and unpolished Hanner Mosquera-Perea.

"I like what we're building," said Robert Johnson, the freshman who's going to be a big part of whatever the Hoosiers eventually become. "If we get everybody back, we're going to be a very good team."

Before looking ahead, though, a moment to consider the present. While Ferrell talked about feeling sadness and anger (and physical pain) over the end of the Hoosiers' season, my sense is IU neither over-achieved nor under-achieved this season; they simply achieved. The Big Ten media picked them to finish near the bottom of the league this preseason. But in the end, they finished with 20 victories and an NCAA Tournament berth.

Not what IU fans have come to expect from one of the most storied programs in the nation.

But not as bad as IU fans once feared.

Maybe it was the way it all unfolded that had IU fans pulling their hair out. Expectations were properly raised when the Hoosiers rushed out to a 15-4 start and a 5-1 start to the Big Ten season. But then it all circled the drain, the Hoosiers going 0-8 (now 0-9) since Jan. 22 against NCAA Tournament teams. It's like we expected nothing, then expected everything...and now it's hard to know what emotion to feel.

"Nobody expected us to do anything this season," Ferrell said. "But we hung together and made the Tournament."

Said Crean: "I'm proud of our guys, the way they have persevered is a great word for us right now. I wouldn't call it a mantra, we're not trying to make a T-shirt, but the bottom line is that's what our guys have done all year. They have persevered through adversity, persevered through different trials, and they did some things that not a whole lot of people expected them to do."

So where do they go from here – besides class? A lot depends on whether Ferrell or Troy Williams decide to go pro, something I'd loudly dissuade them from doing. Ferrell did not commit either to coming back or leaving and just said he'd sit down with the coaches and his family and make some decisions. Williams simply said he hasn't given any thought to his future.

I'm completely in favor of seeing young people pursue their dreams and income, but I can't see Ferrell doing any more than playing overseas. Williams has ridiculous athleticism, but he could truly use another season in college to grow his game.

As the media went from player to player, attempting to cull pearls of wisdom, the Hoosiers sat quietly at their stalls, most with their arms folded. It wasn't a great season, wasn't an awful season, but maybe it was a start of better things to come. There is hope here, but it all comes down to the one thing that killed the Hoosiers most of this season, killed them Friday afternoon against Wichita State.

They desperately need a big man.

Are you listening, Thomas Bryant? How about you, Thon Maker?