Did anyone else get a minor chill seeing Doc Rivers in Assembly Hall? I can’t explain this at all. I don’t really like Rivers. I’m not sure he’s a great NBA coach so much as a decent NBA coach who happened to luck into Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen at the right time. And after the Bulls-Celtics series last spring, I’m kind of predisposed to hate everything to do with this current Celtics team.
And yet there I was, getting all goosebumpy as John Laskowski nervously interviewed Rivers at halftime. Rivers talked about his son, Jeremiah, his (Doc’s) excitement on his son’s announcement that he was considering Indiana as a destination, and his desire to just be a parent during IU games. He even had the IU hat on. It was pretty cool. And it was probably the most noteworthy thing about IU’s relatively lackluster win over USC-Upstate Monday night.
This year’s Hoosiers present a weird paradox. They’re not last year’s team, as much as Devan Dumes might wish they were. They’re definitely better — you can see the heightened level of play almost immediately, from Rivers to Christian Watford (man, is it nice to have an athletic big man with touch in an IU uniform again) to Derek Elston to Maurice Creek, who might just become my favorite player on this year’s team.
But this year’s Hoosiers are not a good team. There is a long way to go from “better than 6-25” to “good.” And so while last year a win like Monday night’s might have been cause for minor excitement — IU led by 20! IU scored 69 points! — this year, it feels harder to process. So, am I supposed to be excited that IU seems borderline competent again? Or should I be depressed by the fact that an 18-turnover game at home against USC-Upstate has me considering excitement? See what I mean?
The Indiana Hoosiers have not been an easy team to root for this season. In their 11-game losing streak and Big Ten winlessness, they’ve struggled to inspire much of anything in the way of interest, or intrigue, or emotion, really. (With the exception of the Michigan game, that is. That sucked.)
By far the most satisfying part of the season has been watching Tom Crean, watching him both on and off the court. Watching him handle his business, watch him coach every game like IU has a Final Four shot, watch him prod players along without showing even the slightest hint of frustration, watch him work a Chicago crowd into a veritable frenzy. All the while, his former team, Marquette, has been running roughshod over the best conference in college basketball; they might get a No. 1 NCAA Tourney seed. Until last night, it was a question as to whether or not IU would win a single game the rest of the season.
Ah, but win they did. Ryan predicted it (he downplays his predictive abilities, but the man has a gift), as did Devan Dumes and Tijan Jobe (whose new nickname should be “prophet.”) It felt like it was time, didn’t it? An awful Iowa team playing Indiana at home. Indiana seeming to, in its last few games, pull things together a bit more. Last night was the night.
It’s not about us, really, but I’m curious: After the game, how did you feel? Excited? Relieved? Anything? I’ll be honest and say that I wasn’t overjoyed or thrilled or cathartically relieved like I assumed. I thought I would be jumping up and down, or something. Instead, I was just kind of pleased — glad to know the Hoosiers won’t go the entire season without a Big Ten win, that Crean’s and his players’ hard work was rewarded, at least for one night. Not overjoyed. Just happy. That’s good enough.
Of course, though the result was the same, there was plenty about the game that had 2008-09 Hoosiers written all over it. Let’s take a look:
All we are past the mopey part of the season now? I’ll admit, I’ve gone through some weird attitudinal shifts toward the 2008-09 Indiana Hoosiers — going from depression to blind faith to cheeriness and back again a couple of times. The past week or so has been the worst. Just as the college basketball season is taking off, earning more nightly attention than at any other part of the year, the cruel reality about Indiana basketball was finally sinking in: IU is just plain awful. They’re going to be awful for the rest of the season. And no amount of rationalizing is going to make the experience any better.
So yeah, the past few weeks — the Michigan game, then the Illinois debacle, and so on — have been pretty depressing. It’s enough to challenge one’s sanity. Why am I watching this team? What’s the point? Do I really not care about Indiana basketball?
Of course I do, and the Hoosiers’ game against Minnesota proved why: They’re getting there. It might not happen on the road, and it might not happen soon, but IU will win a Big Ten game, and it will be awesome.
Until then there’s not a lot to analyze, really. The Hoosiers are just as bad as they look. They’re inefficient offensively because they turn the ball over like crazy. They allow far too many open looks, they don’t have the size to match up, they’re inexperienced, and so forth. There are only so many ways to write that brilliant batch of analysis you just read without getting sick of writing it, let alone reading it. But at one point, I now feel confident in saying, the stars will align, the opposing team won’t knock down those shots, the game will come down to the last few plays, and the Hoosiers won’t turn the ball over, or miss a free throw, or do something utterly erratic that boggles the mind and makes one throw a pillow at the opposite couch. They’ll complete that pass; they’ll make that shot; they’ll avoid weirdness. And they’ll win.
It will be short-lived and it might only be one game. But like I said: It will be awesome.
There are only so many things to say from game to game about the way IU is playing. For example, what was there to say after Illinois? The Hoosiers were destroyed by a far superior (and still underrated) team. Michigan was the real disappointment — a game the Hoosiers should have had, even if most of us suspected a second-half letdown — but one that was ultimately caused by the same systemic flaws that caused IU to lose to Illinois. Youth. Inexperience. Lack of depth. Lack of athleticism. Poor defense. And so on. It gets repetitive listing out these things every third day of the week; what’s worse, it gets depressing.
In the interest of staving off those existential demons, let’s get positive for a few paragraphs here, shall we? Cool. As there is no Shon Morris to take any rage out on this week, it’ll hopefully be a little easier.
(First, let’s do a musical interlude, something to help the mood:
Ryan touched on much of “The Good” last night, but at least one of his points deserves to be hammered home: Verdell Jones is an improving basketball player. The freshman was set behind by an early season injury, but he seems fully recovered. What’s more, he seems to be learning. His direction of the offense (which at times against Ohio State’s matchup zone stretched the good-faith use of the term “offense”; standing overloading one side of the court doesn’t work if the overloading duo are standing right next to each other) was, as Ryan wrote, competent. His ability to get to the rim is a welcome sight. Jones isn’t a conventionally quick player. He glides, swoops to the lane, takes long jump stops before settling in to his mid-range jumper. He’s far from a perfect player — his defense is a long way away, among other things — but having someone who can both distribute the ball and command the team and also, you know, shoot the ball from time to time (cough Daniel Moore cough) is big.
After the massive disappointment last week against Michigan, I didn’t expect much out of Saturday’s game at Illinois — that’s a tough place to play, and Illinois has sneakily been really good this year. Their tempo-free numbers belie a team better than their win-loss record, and their win-loss record is good. Let’s just say I didn’t have my hopes up. And still, somehow, the game was a gigantic letdown.
As R, Alex, and my friends yesterday could attest, I racked my brain for a while thinking of things to say about this game, and I really don’t have much. Some blowouts you can analyze; some are deceptive. There was nothing deceptive happening Saturday. Illinois was just so much better in every facet of basketball it was simultaneously boring and engaging. That doesn’t happen often.
In any case, this is your Monday open thread. Discuss whatever you’d like, whether it’s Saturday’s game, or when you predict IU will win its first Big Ten contest, or whatever. It’s all you.
I have one thought to hopefully get the discussion going. Not only was IU bad on Saturday — just skillwise, in matchups, that sort of thing — but it was the first time this year that it seemed like they weren’t even trying. Transition defense was unusually slow; Illinois was able to get into their secondary break, make one pass, and have a wide open jumper waiting for them before IU even matched up man-to-man or picked up the nearest player. I understand being drained after the Michigan game. That’s fine. But the one positive constant about the Hoosiers this year has been their energy and commitment to their coach, and Saturday was the first time I didn’t see it.
Also, one more: Did Illinois fans even enjoy that? Wasn’t that sort of like working out all summer, getting big, hoping to fight the bully that terrorized you last year only to see the bully come back to school in a wheelchair? I mean, you can punch the kid in the face if you want … but it’s not going to be nearly as satisfying.
Haha, just kidding! That wasn’t fun at all! That was precisely as much fun as a rusty ballpeen hammer to the eye socket, only less violent, so long as you don’t count “throwing an empty can of whatever stupid health drink I’m swilling these days across the f–king room” as violence. The only thing that could have made last night’s second half less fun was if Tom Hamilton and Shon Morris were screaming and rattling off stupid one-liners, respectively, throughout the entire godforsaken telecast. Oh, wait. They were.
I mean, really, where to start? With IU’s brilliant, peerless, unbelievable and unlikely first half? With Michigan’s inversely horrible one? With the Hoosiers’ slow descent in the second half? With the way Michigan gradually edged their way back in the game — not at all once, but with the methodical surety of a team absolutely confident of their superiority?
Instead I’ll start (this is sort of a start I guess; the actual start, as you likely noticed, was the angry diatribe at the top of the post) with halftime. Right in the middle, before the flood. IU was winning by a margin I’d honestly rather not recount. A few seconds after the buzzer sounded for halftime, I found myself doing something peculiar: clapping. To myself. This isn’t exactly rare; it happens every time I get even marginally excited about beating some snotty Brit in FIFA 09. But I did catch myself, and stop for a second, and pay attention to my computer again, and think, and that’s when it hit me:
Ah, the Hoosiers. Just when I thought I was out … they pull me back in.
It’s not as though I had given up on the season in any sort of meaningful way. Actually, I’d given up on the season, in the way most people use the phrase (i.e. forgetting about any sort of end-term success prematurely) well before the season started. Whatever illusions I had about surprising a few people are long gone. Whatever hopes I had for a mid-Big Ten finish vanished somewhere in the Lipscomb box score.
Saturday’s game showed something. It showed that despite all of IU’s truly serious flaws, despite their disadvantages in talent, and despite their inexperience and sometimes strange behavior … they can compete. They can be competitive. Even if it’s against Iowa — a team that might feed on the bottom of the Big Ten this year too — it shows that if IU defends well, rebounds, and does all the very fundamental things that coaches try to instill before anything else, they can put in a respectable performance.
At this point in IU’s young, ugly rebuilding year, I feel confident in a few assertions:
IU is not a very good basketball team.
IU is not going to be a very good basketball team.
IU is not even a decent basketball team.
IU is probably — probably — not going to be a decent basketball team.
Tom Crean is a God.
That’s about all I have at this point. Last night, watching the game with Ryan, I was trying to think of how I could write The Morning After about a game so poor, a team so painful to watch, that didn’t repeat itself so much. There are only so many ways R and Alex and I can come up with to say “IU is not very good. Tom Pritchard is solid. The Hoosiers turn the ball over too much.”
Whoa, right? After a couple of bad losses to teams we didn’t even look competitive against, IU was given a coming-home gift Wednesday night. That gift, the TCU Horned Frogs, was about as inept a basketball team you’ll see all year, including the kids in cream and crimson. They were awful. So was IU. At least for one half.
The second half? As ugly as it was, and as much as I winced, and as openly as the ESPN studio clown mocked it — after the game, he said something like “They won’t be submitting that footage to the NCAA!” — IU undeniably played better than at any time this year. It was still ugly, sure. But there were signs of something underneath, too, a baseline level of competence, athleticism, and defensive ability that the Hoosiers had yet to showcase in their young, fitful season. It was nice to watch.
The point is that no matter how bad TCU is, or was supposed to be, IU has played its fair share of bad teams this year already (Chaminade, for one) and barely come out with a victory. Next to Cornell, and the first 20 minutes of Wake Forest, this was still IU’s most impressive performance to date.
Usually, The Morning After is a combination of the following:
1. Me talking about basketball in a barely informed fashion, including but not limited to offensive sets, efficiency, tempo-free/possession-related statistics, and how irritating it is when people take too many bad shots, or
2. Why the Big Ten Network sucks.
3. Why Player X is incredibly interesting to me, even if that player isn’t particularly effective. Last year: Eli Holman.
You get the idea. Even better if you’re a regular reader, you know the idea. Unfortunately, today’s TMA will not look much like the idea.
Why? Let me tell you about my Wednesday night.
I got off work, which was sort of busy but not too busy (which could describe just about anybody’s work day four times out of five), and I got on the train and went to the store and then to Starbucks and then I walked home. I sat down, got on my computer, approved a bunch of live blog comments, and watched IU play Wake Forest in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. I saw a scrappy, well-disciplined, seemingly focused IU team hang on for about 10 minutes or so before getting blown out. I approved some more blog comments. I whined about ESPN a bunch. I ate some pad thai. I approved some more comments, and watched some more basketball, and winced as IU got torn to shreds by a team that was barely even trying, barely even sweating. I approved some more blog comments. And then the game ended.