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Where does Indiana basketball go from here?

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For more on college sports, follow Pete DiPrimio via Twitter at www.twitter.com/pdiprimio

Vonleh's NBA draft decision is a key

Tuesday, March 18, 2014 - 5:28 am

BLOOMINGTON -- So where does Indiana, season over, disappointment lingering, go from here?

How do the Hoosiers regain their NCAA tourney relevance and national prominence after this 17-15 meltdown?

The simple answers -- improve the shooting, cut down the turnovers, play smart and consistent, close out tight games.

But then, as we know from our Cream 'n Crimson basketball history, nothing is ever simple at Indiana, especially in the spring. Drama and intrigue can appear faster than you can ask, what's Noah Vonleh going to do?

Will the 6-10 Big Ten freshman of the year bolt for NBA riches after a season in which he led the conference in rebounds (9.1) and double doubles (10) while averaging 11.4 points?

Vonleh declined to comment when asked about the NBA draft during the Big Ten tourney, but reports are he is leaning toward passing on his final three college seasons. Yahoo! Sports reported that Vonleh's “inner circle” has talked to sports agents, which NCAA rules allow as long as he doesn't sign with one. NBA officials like his potential, but recognize it will take time -- at least a year -- for him to become NBA ready.

The 18-year-old Vonleh might do it faster than that. His impressive work ethic and attitude enabled him to make a quick transition to the college game.

“When I was coming in I thought the play would be a lot faster, a lot more physical,” he said. “I thought I adjusted well. I had to get in the weight room, and work on my speed and strength. I think I've had a pretty good freshman season. I could have had a better one, but it was pretty good.”

Would Vonleh benefit from another year in college, especially by playing on a big-time stage as opposed to, say, a lot of work in the NBA's D-League?

Absolutely.

But then there's the money matter.

The NBA's rookie salary structure is based on three-year contracts, with an option for a fourth year. Last year IU's Victor Oladipo, the No. 2 pick, made $3.97 million his first year, with the three-year total at more than $12 million. Hoosier teammate Cody Zeller, the No. 4 pick, got $3.2 million his first year with a three-year total at just over $10 million.

If Vonleh goes somewhere between No. 7 and No. 12 as projected, he'd make around $2 million the first year and around $7 million for three years.

The deadline for applying for the NBA draft is April 27.

If Vonleh stays, and everybody else returns, the Hoosiers could make a run at a Big Ten championship, and a lot more.

Vonleh would give them one of the best big men in the nation. Sophomore point guard Yogi Ferrell is coming off an all-conference season in which he averaged more than 17 points and 4.0 assists a game. Freshmen Troy Williams (15.0-point average in his last three games, 7.4 for the season) and Stanford Robinson (6.4 season average) improved dramatically down the stretch, as did under-sized forward Devin Davis.

Coach Tom Crean can do a lot with that as the foundation.

Add highly touted 6-2 freshman guard James Blackmon (a former Bishop Luers standout and a McDonald's All-America who rates among the best shooters in the Class of 2014), plus 6-3 Robert Johnson (rated No. 42 nationally by Rivals.com) and 6-7 Max Hoetzel, and you have another top-15 recruiting class for Crean. The potential is there for a special season.

“We should be a lot better next year,” Vonleh said. “We have a lot of good shooters coming in -- James Blackmon, Rob Johnson, Max Hoetzel. With those guards and guys who can stretch the floor and shoot, we'll be a lot more versatile and come back strong next year.”

Life gets more complex if Vonleh leaves. Then the Hoosiers would lack a true post presence. Promising freshman center Luke Fischer was a mid-season transfer to Marquette. Seven-foot Peter Jurkin has barely played in his first two seasons because of injuries, and that's not likely to change.

IU hasn't signed a big man for next season, and could go the junior college route or get a fifth-year senior transfer. Most of the top high school big men are already signed.

IU needs more from sophomore forwards Hanner Mosquera-Perea (2.9 points, 2.2 rebounds) and Jeremy Hollowell (5.7 points, 3.6 rebounds), who both missed games because of off-court issues. The 6-9 Perea was suspended for two games after being arrested for OWI. Hollowell missed three games for reasons never explained.

The 6-8 Hollowell began the season as a starter. He scored as many as 18 points, grabbed as many as 10 rebounds, but struggled from three-point range and never played with the fire and consistency necessary for elite success.

Redshirt sophomore swingman Austin Etherington was recruited to provide the kind of instant perimeter offense Matt Roth once thrived at, but it has rarely happened. Etherington averaged 2.0 points and 1.7 rebounds.

Freshman Collin Hartman injured his knee during a Saturday practice, and will undergo surgery to fix a torn ACL. He played in just 16 games and averaged 0.7 points and 0.9 rebounds.

Indiana will upgrade its non-conference schedule, which ranked among the nation's worst this season. It will play Louisville in New York and SMU as part of a exempt four-team event at Assembly Hall. There is also the annual Big Ten/ACC Challenge as well as a Crossroads Classic game with Butler in Indianapolis.

As for this past season, in which early optimism was squashed by Big Ten reality, Sunday night's NIT rejection still stings. Was Vonleh surprised at how much IU struggled in the aftermath of losing four 1,000-point scorers from a Big Ten title team?

“I didn't assume anything coming in. I knew we were losing a lot of players. We were going to have a lot of freshmen. We all played significant minutes. With all the young players, I knew it would be tough. We played pretty well, but we lost a lot of games we shouldn't have.

Performance indicated fractured team chemistry, but Vonleh insisted all was well.

“Everybody's attitude was great. We were trying to get better in practice every day. We watched a lot of film. We kept pushing.”

They didn't keep listening consistently. Crean talked about “toughness” and “competitive spirit,” but often got dysfunction in return.

“I try to deliver that message differently,” he said after the Hoosiers' one-and-done Big Ten flame out, “because I've given it a few times.”

It didn't sink in this season. It has to next season -- in a NCAA tourney qualifying way.