BLOOMINGTON — There’s this team I cover, and they do the damndest stuff.
See, they lose to a team that is, statistically, one of the worst they’ll play this season. Lose, hell, they get walked on, tooled against the worst team in their conference.
And then they come home, lick their wounds, and beat one of the three most-disliked opponents on their schedule. And they pick up their first win over a ranked team in about 35 months.
They take this crew that’s probably going to the NCAA Tournament and they work them over. Jeremiah Rivers, the team’s lone senior, goes absolutely lockdown on one of the Big Ten’s best point guards, forcing a young man that had made beating Indiana his own personal sport in the past to look remarkably mediocre.
Demetri McCamey was an Indiana killer, the kind who played like a guy with a giant chip on his shoulder against the team that he once might have joined. He scored 31 points against them in a loss his freshman year, and 19 in each contest – including a game-winner in Champaign – last season.
Thursday night, Jeremiah Rivers shut him down. I believe the phrase is “beat him like he stole something,” proverbially speaking, of course. McCamey finished with six points and five turnovers, and was absolutely absent when his team needed him most.
“He’s their catalyst, so he makes them go,” said Christian Watford, who finished with 16 points. “And when he’s not going, they all look a little stagnant.”
There’s evidence to support that theory. For the game, Indiana allowed just one Illinois player – forward Mike Davis – to score in double figures, after letting four Iowa Hawkeyes into double digits five days prior.
Tom Pritchard (Tom Pritchard!) hit a game-winning shot. Let that sink in, and I believe you’ll begin coming around to my point.
Two years ago, Indiana was starving, gasping for air with the water right at its head. Last year, it battled the trappings of youth and the traits of inconsistency.
This year … well, this year, IU basketball has gone off the page.
There can be no realistic expectation for this team anymore. None. They might go to Michigan State and beat the Spartans on Sunday. They might get smoked. I have absolutely no idea.
Does this team play up or down to the level of its competition with too much frequency? That’s as plausible an explanation as I can offer.
“I really can’t,” Crean said, when asking to explain his team’s peak-and-valley season. “It’s um … I’m going to focus on how they played tonight, and get ready for the next game.”
Quite honestly, that’s probably as good a strategy as any.
Over the span of 12 days, this team has beaten the maize out of Michigan, played perhaps the Big Ten’s second-best team to a nail biter in one of the country’s toughest road environments, been absolutely embarrassed by the conference’s worst team and then shut down one of its best players and offenses to seal Tom Crean’s first win over a ranked team since he came to Bloomington.
So it’s been a pretty wild ride.
There was plenty of debate over whether the court-storming partaken by the Indiana students section after the game was apropos of the moment, considering the Hoosiers’ deep history of success. I say screw it, let the kids run. They’ve put up with enough to deserve a few brief moments of unadulterated bliss.
Tom Crean certainly did. After the game, Crean ran from the court to the south lobby of Assembly Hall, admittedly trying to slap or shake every congratulatory hand that found him.
“I can’t explain how much I wanted to share it with everybody,” he said afterward. “Maybe that sounds corny, but I don’t take any of it for granted.”
When he got back to the locker room, he discovered a phone stuffed with text messages from well-wishers. One of them came from his brother-in-law John, the Harbaugh that’s in charge of the Baltimore Ravens.
“John Harbaugh said ‘Your team came of age tonight,’” Crean said, “and I hope he’s right.”
I don’t know if he is. I don’t know if he isn’t.
And at this point, I’m through guessing.