Hoosiers aim for first national title since '87

Pat Forde
Yahoo Sports

Editor's note: Yahoo! Sports will spend the upcoming season chronicling the three teams widely expected to be ranked 1-2-3 in the preseason polls: Indiana, Kentucky and Louisville. The regional rivals have a combined 15 national titles and 30 Final Four appearances, but never have they entered a season with a monopoly on the top spots in the rankings.

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Two hours into the first practice of the most promising Indiana basketball season in 20 years, Tom Crean blew the whistle and blew up his star player.

In a five-on-five scrimmage situation, big man Cody Zeller hadn't sprinted all the way back on defense. That allowed Will Sheehey to catch a pass from Jordan Hulls for a transition layup, and that had Crean halting the proceedings.

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Tom Crean knows Indiana will need to improve its defense to contend for the national title. (AP)

Zeller is the leading candidate for national Player of the Year, but nobody was handing out any trophies in Assembly Hall on Oct. 12. If Zeller was going to ease up for even one run down the court, Crean was going to call him on it.

"You could've broken that up, Cody!" Crean yelled. "There's no better runner in college basketball, and you didn't start running until the ball was in the air. On the line!"

As Zeller and his teammates ran a wind sprint, Crean's voice rose another level. With five national championship banners hanging at one end of the gym and hopes high that this season will add a sixth – the program's first since 1987 – there is an urgency in the air.

"Cody, I'm serious!" Crean yelled. "Are we lowering our standards? You want to be held to a lower standard? No possessions off!"

[Also: Missouri's Keion Bell makes ridiculous Midnight Madness slam dunk]

During that interlude, Zeller's demeanor never changed. No sulking, no scowling, no dropping the head, no bending over and tugging the shorts. He handled it the way Crean knew he would handle it.

Indiana's first official practice was a closed workout, in front of about 30 family members and selected friends of the program. (ESPN televised part of the workout, but Yahoo! Sports and IU radio voice Don Fischer were the only media members in the gym for the entire practice.) The big Midnight Madness production will be this Saturday, when the Indiana students return from fall break.

So this was serious basketball. And this was a Send-A-Message moment for the Hoosiers, on multiple levels.

On the macro level, this was the coach telling everyone in the gym that if Indiana is going to be ranked No. 1 for the first time since 1993, the effort has to match the sky-high expectations. All the time. And especially on defense, where Indiana was average at best during last year's 27-9 breakthrough season. The Hoosiers will be a beautiful offensive team, flush with great shooters and all-court versatility, but they'll have to stop some people.

"That's our Achilles heel right now," Crean said after practice. "We want to average 50 deflections a game. It can be done. But it can't be done unless we're using our length and athleticism on every play."

[Also: North Carolina freshmen don ballet slippers and tutus]

On the micro level, this was the coach telling everyone in the gym that the star player is not going to get star treatment – in fact, it might be the opposite at times. Call it the Gregg Popovich-Tim Duncan dynamic, where the star is singled out because the coach knows he can take it. And if Zeller can be blown up, so can everyone else on the roster. No exceptions.

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Cody Zeller averaged 15.6 points and 6.6 rebounds last season for the Hoosiers. (Getty Images)

Not that Crean is expecting attitude problems or an effort deficit. Quite to the contrary.

"I have not had one time where I worried about their being hungry, being driven to work," he said. "Young and old, it just has been there."

One look at the Hoosiers tells you that there was a lot of work done in the weight room in the offseason. The 7-foot Zeller has added about 15 pounds, up to 240 – Crean said the sophomore's challenge will be learning how to run the floor with that additional weight. Forwards Christian Watford and Derek Elston and guard Victor Oladipo and Remy Abell look noticeably bigger as well.

Some of them have to be in order to keep their minutes. Indiana returns all five starters from last year, but a talented four-man freshman class will be pushing hard for playing time. Crean stirred the pot last week by saying one of the freshmen might start.

It may happen, but not without resistance from the older guys. With only Zeller, Watford and Oladipo assured of their minutes, the competition level was intense Friday.

"That'll be fun to watch on film," Crean said of the individual battles.

On day one, point guard Yogi Ferrell looked the most college-ready of the freshmen. It will be difficult to dislodge Hulls, but Ferrell will get plenty of time in 2012-13.

The other freshmen are intriguing, but works in progress. During a drill on defensive fundamentals, Crean wore out his whistle trying to get forward Hanner Mosquera-Perea to understand his concepts on footwork and hand position. He had Sheehey show Mosquera-Perea what he was doing wrong. When the freshman finally got it right, the whole team cheered him and Crean slapped his hand.

But it wasn't just the freshmen when it came to harping on defense. When Abell, a sculpted 6-4 sophomore, failed to body up his man, Crean hit the whistle again.

"This is what's going to keep me awake at night, figuring out how you're going to be a great defender," he said to Abell. "Get up there and use your strength and athleticism! You've got guns now! Use them!"

[Also: North Carolina fans give Roy Williams heartwarming ovation]

At another point during a full-court four-on-three drill, when the Hoosiers were hitting shot after shot, Crean blew the whistle and sought outside input.

"Darrin," Crean yelled to Darrin Horn, his former Marquette assistant and the former head coach at South Carolina and Western Kentucky. "What's missing from the defense?"

"Talk," Horn responded quickly.

"That and?" Crean asked.

"Hands."

"Hands! The hands are down! The offense is good, but it's not that good!"

When the practice was over, Crean sent the entire team into the Assembly Hall stands to say hello to family, introduce themselves to strangers and thank everyone for coming. It was humorous to hear No. 40 extend a hand and say, "I'm Cody Zeller." As if anyone in the gym didn't know.

Then eight players returned to the court to take extra shots after practice. The last man in the gym was Oladipo, doing ball-handling drills into the night.

In this season of great promise at Indiana, there should be no shortage of diligence. And just in case there is, Tom Crean will be there to call his Hoosiers on it.

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