COLUMN: The ideal Indiana

Questions have surrounded Cody Zeller (center) and whether he is the elite, dominant player he was billed to be in the preseason, but the larger question surrounding Indiana is what the Hoosiers look like at their very best.

Tom Crean isn’t fond of thinking in the most conventional terms.

He doesn’t like to make player comparisons, historical to current. He prefers not to deal in hypothetical possibilities publicly (excluding, I suppose, the ones that are unavoidable in a profession defined by hypothetical possibilities). He doesn’t like measuring progress too tangibly, and he doesn’t like judging his players statistically.

And when asked Friday, at two different points in his postgame press conference, about his team’s readiness for Big Ten play and about Cody Zeller’s handle on the heavy expectations that followed him into this season, Crean declined to stay inside the box.

The Hoosiers are “getting better,” Crean said, and he’s never looked at Zeller with statistical expectations, which obviously puts him firmly into a minority group in college basketball. The questions weren’t unfair, nor were Crean’s answers to them. Both are simply the product of a non-conference season that probably could have tested Indiana more than it did, and of our never-ending December angst to search for March clarity in college basketball.

Indiana is an elite team, a top-10 squad capable of winning any game when it plays well. This is nearly indisputable. And Zeller is as elite and difficult to defend as he wants to be on any given night. So does this answer our questions about the Hoosiers? It does not.

Crean does like to think in terms of player value, and he sees it a few not named “Zeller.” Yes, Indiana would be significantly changed and weakened if it lost its sophomore All-American, but I would argue the same could be said for Victor Oladipo, for Jordan Hulls, for Yogi Ferrell and for Will Sheehey as well.

Really, what would hurt Indiana would be the loss of depth, which is to say the loss of options. Zeller and Christian Watford combined for more fouls (three) than made field goals (two) in the first half of Friday’s game, and yet Indiana still had two double-figure first-half scorers and led by 15 against Jacksonville at the intermission.

That doesn’t tell us how Indiana will cope with a foul-slowed Zeller or the worryingly inconsistent Watford should a similar scenario unfold against Iowa City, but it does once again prove that the Hoosiers have enough options to change directions offensively or defensively when they need to.

We don’t really know quite yet if Indiana is at its best with Zeller at his. We can think so, considering his 20-point, eight-rebound performance cued a November rout of North Carolina. But we also don’t really know how good North Carolina is right now, and we’ve rarely seen Zeller as dominant as he was that night, so the question of a dominant Indiana being defined by a dominant Zeller remains one whose answer is yet to be determined, with Big Ten play now on deck.

And where does Indiana stand as a team?

It’s a curious question, because it requires the last four years, so important to the narrative of the program’s rebirth, to be forgotten almost entirely.

Everything last season centered around measuring extensive progress, on attempting to explain how a team beset by so many problems had turned itself around so drastically in just one offseason. But that’s not relevant now, if we’re talking about Indiana, national championship contender. The past does not matter to the present, anymore than one of Indiana’s 28 wins from November 2008 to March 2011 matters to Big Ten play starting Dec. 31.

Yes, those experiences, all of that adversity, built this team. That is indisputable. But they are irrelevant to the bubble of a national title run, the past only mattering if it somehow prepared you for right now.

Lost, then, in all the fretting over Zeller, or Watford, or any other individual player, is a larger thought — what does the ideal Indiana win look like?

I really don’t know. The non-conference season certainly hasn’t taught me. You say Zeller is Indiana’s golden goose, yet I’d argue it’s Hulls, or perhaps even Oladipo. Where would the Hoosiers be without the scoring prowess and leadership of the former, or the defense and energy of the latter?

The reality is in a national title hunt, every player is valuable, and every moment is too. Crean will defend his non-conference slate, and he’s entitled to. It’s easy to forget that this month should have also included a trip to Rupp Arena. And let the rest of us fret over its weakness, because that’s what we do. Its fluid nature is part of what makes college basketball — and these sorts of arguments — so entertaining.

Indiana didn’t get its signature win until the end of February last season, when it corralled and controlled Michigan State in Bloomington. There’s no reason to think we’ve already seen the best of these Hoosiers, seeing as it’s the end of December, and not the start of March.

So as the calendar turns to the conference season, and rigors from which no pretender can hide, consider less Cody Zeller’s statistical impact, or Indiana’s legitimacy relative only to those teams it has played.

Try instead to pinpoint exactly what Indiana looks like at its best, as opposed to when it is simply very good. What is the ideal IU win? The answer to that question ought to make itself known in the next two months, and it, moreso than any one player or opponent, will determine whether this Indiana is made of Final Four-type stuff.

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