INDIANAPOLIS — The first words out of Jordan Hulls’ mouth talked about rebounding.
Standing outside his team’s locker room after a season-ending 73-58 loss to Northwestern, the question was posed to Indiana’s young guard: What did you learn from this season?
“We can be a great rebounding team,” Hulls said. “We came together, we have lots to improve upon, but I feel like we got a lot better as the season went on.”
Down the stretch run last year, during that record-setting losing streak and through the mounting blowouts, it began to feel as though the Hoosiers had maxed out their potential for that season. Overmatched and undermanned every night, Indiana reached a point where players were physically and, perhaps, mentally worn down to such a degree that both the means and the end of each game became thoroughly predictable.
This season looked that way too, for awhile. After a strong December and January, marked by wins over the likes of Pittsburgh, Michigan and Minnesota, the Hoosiers disappeared, losing 11 in a row in mostly-forgettable fashion. Fans wanted to give up. Some of us in the media (me, mostly) wanted to let go. Even players, at times, appeared as if their hearts and heads just couldn’t align well enough to give another win-worthy effort.
The Senior Day win over Northwestern disproved that. And Thursday’s loss, deceptively large, sort of said the same.
I was in this building a year ago when, against a talented-but-not-unstoppable Penn State squad, No. 11-seed Indiana basically rolled over. The Hoosiers just looked too tired, too worn down, too short of confidence to mount a significant challenge against any Big Ten opponent.
What positives could one take from such regular, predictable, heavy losing? I don’t think it’s fair to say that this time around.
FINAL SCORE: Indiana 88, Northwestern 80, OT | Box Score
This win did not come easy. When it seemed like the Hoosiers had it locked up in regulation, when if felt like this 11-game losing streak was finally — finally! — going to be over, a couple costly turnovers by Verdell Jones let Northwestern stick around in regulation.
And in OT, there was still that “IU-has-the-lead-but-is-it-enough” feeling up until Tjian and Fink came in to close it out.
But yes: it was a win. An impressive win. A sign that the future — for as bleak as it’s looked the last several weeks — is bright.
Let us count the ways:
1) Great call by coach Tom Crean to start Derek Elston and insert Verdell Jones at the point to start this game. Time and time again Elston proved his worth. He had a terrific dunk to ignite the crowd and nice tip-in for two early, and finished the game with 17 points — a career-high — and eight boards. He just brings an element to the court IU hasn’t had all season; Elston is a high-energy player with a big body that can score in a variety of ways and finish around the hole.
This kid can be a double-double machine for years to come.
And without Jeremiah Rivers at the point to start this game, IU didn’t turn the ball over until the 10:25 mark of the first half. That turnover was committed by, of course, Rivers.
But because the Hoosiers started out so well this afternoon, it gave them the confidence to realize they were not only in the game, but that they could win it. The first ten minutes of bullet-proof play were of the utmost importance.
Now, when the Wildcats went into that half-court trap in the second half, IU did have some turnover problems — espeically down the stretch — which let the Wildcats hang around. But including the OT period, the Hoosiers had 17 turnovers. Clearly, that’s still not too good. But they’ve had more in only 40 minutes of play this season, not 45.
Thanks to our friends @ChrisKorman and @DustinDopirak over at the H-T/Hoosier Scoop, you can listen to the postgame comments of Tom Crean, Christian Watford, Daniel Moore, Verdell Jones and Jordan Hulls following yesterday’s loss at Wisconsin.
The Good Hoosiers showed up tonight in Bloomington. After the Bad Hoosiers lacked any sense of urgency in Columbus earlier this week, IU was a completely different squad this evening. They played like they wanted to win, like they deserved to win.
Perhaps this is just what we’re in for this season: a bit of deer-in-the-headlights-what-are-we-doing play on the road, while on its home court, Indiana plays with the utmost confidence. If the Hoosiers can give this kind of effort inside Assembly Hall every time out, they’ll be in most, if not all, of their home contests.
IU rattled off 41 points in the first half, and looked like a team on a mission. They were executing at both ends of the floor. One thing I want to point out during that impressive first 20 minutes: there’s a reason Jordan Hulls is starting alongside Jeremiah Rivers in the backcourt: his spot-up shooting ability. When Rivers is at his best on the dribble-drive and can draw help defense, Hulls stays at home on the wing or corner and has enough spacing to elevate and hit the three. And Rivers is athletic enough to take it all the way to the hole as well.
Devan Dumes certainly could make headlines last season. No, they weren’t always the kind you cut out and pin up at your desk, (or were they?) but Dumes’ confidence at least made for some memorable moments in a season mostly devoid of them.
So where did he go?
Last season’s leading scorer, it made sense when Dumes’ numbers came down in 2009 with the influx of fresh talent. And an injury to begin the season kept him from fighting for a starting place and visibly hindered his ability to get into an offensive rhythm once he was healthy.
But Dumes, who averaged 12.7 points per game last season, has seen that average fall by more than half, and his minutes-per-game average has been reduced almost as much. Worse, Dumes has lost nearly nine points off his overall field-goal percentage from last season to this one, and his 3-point shooting is down from 38.1 percent to 32.6 percent through 14 games.
Of course, none of this looked like more than an unexplained anomaly until Maurice Creek was lost for the season, cutting more than 16 points and the Hoosiers’ best offensive option out of the gameplan. And yet, in the two games since Creek’s injury, that open starting spot has gone to Jordan Hulls, not Dumes.