Indiana coach Tom Crean is convinced he has the talent to win.
He just needs his young players to mature.
The Hoosiers will have plenty of time to fix some persistent problems during an unexpectedly long offseason that officially began Sunday night when they were left out of college basketball's two biggest postseason tournaments.
"There's a lot of talent. There's a lot of work ethic in there," Crean said after Thursday's season-sending 64-54 loss to Illinois in the Big Ten tournament. "We've got to keep understanding what our individual responsibilities are for winning and that means making the game easier for your teammates."
Nobody expected the transition from Big Ten champions to up-and-coming challengers to be easy. Indiana had to replace four 1,000-point scorers, including two players who went in the top four picks of June's NBA draft. Few expected this season to end so soon.
Sophomore point guard Kevin "Yogi" Ferrell and senior forward Will Sheehey were supposed to provide stability and leadership. Instead, Ferrell took on a new role as a more prominent scorer and Sheehey moved from super sub to full-time starter.
Noah Vonleh, the prize of a highly touted recruiting class, started fast and played well enough to be named Big Ten freshman of the year. He also tried to play through a painful foot injury that slowed him late in the season. Two other freshmen, forward Troy Williams and guard Stanford Robinson, appeared to make big strides over the final half of the Big Ten season, but overall the newcomers were inconsistent.
That's a risk with young teams, but the problems never really subsided.
How could the Hoosiers (17-15) beat four ranked teams, yet still lose home games to perennial cellar-dwellers Northwestern and Penn State and get swept by Nebraska? Why couldn't Indiana figure out how to cut down on its turnovers, execute simple inbound plays or protect leads?
"The difference is we just bring it some games, some games we don't. I'm not sure why. If we play great, we win, if we don't, we lose," Ferrell said. "It's frustrating."
After blowing an 11-point lead in the final 3½ minutes in the Penn State loss, Crean noted there were two seniors on the floor during the meltdown and publicly challenged the Hoosiers to improve.
"They're very talented," Sheehey said of the underclassmen. "They've got to make sure they buy in and really listen to the coaches, and they'll be all right."
First, Crean has to fill some holes with another strong recruiting class.
Sheehey and Evan Gordon are graduating. Freshman forward Collin Hartman tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee on Saturday — two days after what turned out to be Indiana's season finale — and it's unclear how quickly he will return.
Vonleh, widely considered a lottery pick, is expected to leave school early. If the Hoosiers lose their best big man, it would be the second major front-line blow in three months. Freshman center Luke Fischer announced he was transferring in December.
The key, however, will be improving over the next seven months when nobody is watching.
"You have to make a simple play, you have to make it about your teammate," Crean said. "We have the talent. They just have to continue to grow up and they have to continue to learn those lessons."
Author: MICHAEL MAROT, AP Sports Writer