BLOOMINGTON –- Watching Indiana basketball develop over the last two-plus years has been something akin to watching a college freshman trying to take an 400-level test while also trying to study the material.
Friday night certainly seemed like another such example, given the giant disparity in sheer talent between No. 2 Ohio State and IU, now 9-6 and 0-2 in the Big Ten.
But perhaps it’s a credit to Indiana that these games — where the gulf between the two teams is so easily recognized – have begun to serve an even more important purpose.
First of all, to be fair, they’re becoming harder to find. No longer are the Hoosiers as outmatched as they once were in either talent or depth.
Christian Watford, one game lost to back spasms aside, continues to put forth All-Big Ten performances. The more aggressiveness Tom Crean can coax out of Jordan Hulls offensively – and the more room Hulls can find on offense – the more dangerous he’ll become. Victor Oladipo continues to emerge offensively as well.
But by Crean’s own admission, Friday night served to highlight a problem in need of rapid correction as Big Ten play enters January. Seeking to compare his team’s effort Friday, when the Hoosiers struggled mightily on defense but never truly let the game slip away or their hustle wane until the end, to the loss last Monday to Penn State, Indiana’s coach was frank.
“If we’d have played with the same spirit and energy on Monday night that we had tonight – it’s not an excuse, we lost by 18 – but we’d have won the game,” he said of Penn State. “We would have won the game. We’d be 1-1, going to Minnesota.
“But we’re not.”
Indiana is not Ohio State. The Buckeyes, at least as 2010 turns into 2011, look like the best team in the country, with Duke simply warming their seat as conference play begins.
But Indiana is finally a team capable of competing with most – if not all – of its opponents in Big Ten play. There are obviously weaknesses, some that are imminently fixable and some that can only be corrected through time and in certain cases reinforcements.
Monday night against Penn State was hard for fans to swallow because it seemed so winnable, and not just because Indiana has historically owned the Nittany Lions.
Friday night supported that theory, even given the disparity in the final score.
Outmatched at essentially every starting position and probably three players deep into their bench, the Hoosiers never backed down. They still struggled with 3-point defense, they still turned the ball over 14 times (although that’s not actually awful) and they still lost by 18, but they certainly played with a kind of determination that said they refused to be intimidated by one of the country’s best teams.
That kind of attitude keeps you moving through mistakes, keeps your confidence up no matter the score or situation.
Following the 69-60 loss to Penn State, Crean expressed the concern that he felt his team did not believe it could win late in that game. It was a feeling he said was not replicated Friday night.
Indiana might not be able to cut away all its turnovers. It might not be able to communicate as well defensively as Crean would like. The Hoosiers are still an imperfect team.
Moving forward, however, the “spirit,” as Crean put it, that they brought Friday night, consistently, possession after possession, will be their greatest ally.
It must be reproduced for the rest of the season, as much as is humanly possible. Because not everyone is Ohio State, and the Big Ten schedule is still only two games old.