Hoosiers counting on better leadership this season

Juwan Morgan didn’t hesitate this time.

He heard the question throughout last season, and again during the spring. When a reporter recently asked about whether this year’s team would demonstrate the mental toughness that last year’s squad did not, Morgan needed merely a one-word response.

Definitely.

Less than a month away from the start of the regular season, the Hoosiers are “definitely” confident they have the experience to avoid last season’s leadership letdown. They believe they “definitely” have the personnel to right the ship.

Not only is that faith a nod to new coach Archie Miller’s direct, no-nonsense style, Morgan says, it’s a reflection of the IU players and what they learned form last year’s leadership void.

“I believe it’s a testament to what he’s put in place, but also just the guys around the team,” said Morgan, a junior forward. “We decided that it’s time that we have that leadership.”

A season of unmet expectations will do that.

Leadership was among the many crucial attributes last year’s team lacked, and until these Hoosiers get knocked around during the upcoming regular season, it will remain unclear exactly how tough this group can be.

But there’s reason to believe.

First, Indiana has five seniors — three of whom will be relied upon for starter’s minutes — and a junior in Morgan who may, too, become a guiding voice once he feels comfortable stepping forward.

The return of fifth-year senior Collin Hartman bodes well for IU’s ability to follow through. Hartman was expected to become the voice of last year’s team until he suffered a season-ending injury in September. The healthy players around him were either unwilling or unable to fill the void.

For Hartman, asserting his presence starts with proving himself in Miller’s new system. Each player on the roster, freshmen included, began on the same level this summer with the new coaching staff. So Hartman feels it’s important to first re-establish himself as a player before he can truly step forward as the fifth-year leader this team needs.

He believes he can do both.

“First and foremost, being a leader, I think you have to lead by example,” Hartman said. “If you’re not capable of doing the things you’re telling somebody to do, why should they listen to you? So step one for me and the thing I’ve been working towards this summer is really getting my body right and getting to where I can do all the things that I’m expecting my teammates to do and that the coaches are expecting of me.

“But I’ve been through a lot of basketball in my life here at IU, so I know what it takes to win. I know what winning looks like. So when I get the confidence up in my physical abilities again and get in the flow of the game and everything, then I can translate the vocal leadership to that and keep sharing it to these young guys.”

Beyond Hartman, Indiana will lean on the presence of senior guards Josh Newkirk and Robert Johnson. Little-used senior forwards Freddie McSwain and Tim Priller will also look to carve roles.

Johnson, more of a role player during his first three seasons, is among the many being asked to carry additional responsibilities. One of the primary objectives for Johnson is becoming more vocal.

Miller says he’s already seeing progress.

“He’s talked more,” Miller said.

So are the others.

“I think that Collin Hartman and Josh Newkirk, two guys that have really brought a spirit when I’m around, the way that they communicate with each other and their teammates brings such a positive vibe, even when they’re not doing well personally. I think that’s been a big step.”

Establishing leadership is a step-by-step process that is merely beginning in the first few months of the Miller era. But after last season’s shortcomings demonstrated the need for a trusted voice, this is a group determined to find it.

“I think our older players,” Miller said, “have really done an outstanding job of taking the reins of the team, showing by example, and then continuing to improve themselves.”