Are the freshmen prime-time ready?
Who's going to be the next 24/7/365 day guy?
So here was Austin Etherington, a veteran in years, a rookie in leadership, embracing a take-charge role that once seemed unlikely. He's entering his third season in the program with just 23 games on his college resume, averaging just over six minutes a game. His fractured left patella (knee cap for those unfamiliar with anatomy) is fully healed, although it won't be until next month that he begins full-go activity. He practices with restraint while the others go without it.
No matter. Necessity finds Etherington in the spotlight. On a roasting Tuesday afternoon, after a rigorous team workout, he was part of a podium approach to season prospects.
“We lost quite a few guys, but we got seven new guys,” he said. “It's been a lot of work for everyone coming in. They're learning their roles and getting better every day. We're working out every morning and afternoon, so everyone is putting in the time to get better.”
Gone early to the NBA are Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo. Gone to graduation are Jordan Hulls, Christian Watford and Derek Elston. Zeller, Oladipo, Hulls and Watford all scored more than 1,000 career points. The Hoosiers won 56 games in the last two seasons, had consecutive Sweet 16 finishes and won their first outright Big Ten title in 20 years.
Replacing them are six freshmen and one fifth-year senior, Evan Gordon, the younger brother of former IU All-America Eric Gordon and the older brother of nationally renowned recruit Eron Gordon.
Hoosier coach Tom Crean and his staff are using the summer to build a strong foundation for the upcoming season. One glitch — IU's two best players, Yogi Ferrell and Will Sheehey — have been gone nearly a month with Team USA responsibilities as part of the World University Games in Russia. The USA went 6-2 and finished ninth.
That left Etherington and sophomore forward Jeremy Hollowell as the most experienced returning players for the bulk of the summer, although sophomore Hanner Mosquera-Perea and Gordon also are keeping the preferred player-driven-program approach vibrant.
“The leadership has changed a lot,” Etherington said. “With me and Jeremy being some of the older guys here right now, and Evan taking a leadership role right away, it's helped us out in a good way. It's made us become better leaders.”
Associate head coach Tim Buckley agreed that the absence of Ferrell and Sheehey accelerated the overall team leadership growth.
“It helps define different roles. Rather than lean on those guys, the others have to step outside themselves a little bit. That's a great advantage. Nothing is at stake as far as winning and losing. They can find out who they are and who they can become.”
It helps that recruiting has kept the talent level high. Indiana is bringing in a top-10 class led by McDonald's All-America Noah Vonleh, plus heralded Troy Williams, Stanford Robinson, Luke Fischer, Devin Davis and Collin Hartman.
“The freshmen are very athletic,” Etherington said. “Coach Crean wants us to be a fast-break team and push the ball. There are no better recruits than the guys we have coming in to do that.”
Perhaps, but the national perception is the Hoosiers are about to take a fall this year. They don't buy it.
“Coming off an outright Big Ten championship in arguably the best conference in the country, sometimes you might have guys who feel entitled,” Buckley said. “That hasn't been the way the new guys have been at all.
“It's a very vocal group. It's a very high-energy group. It's a group that wants to get better. Sometimes the guys who are highly rated are acting like walk-ons. They just want to learn. They're trying to make the team. They have that great energy and spirit. That's one of the legacies of the group that is leaving accomplished, that culture and work ethic.”