— Tom Crean was on the ‘Front Row Ticket’ on 93.9 FM on Thursday afternoon and here is a quick recap of what he had to say:
College basketball seasons are long and dynamic things. They’re not like college football seasons, which require drilled excellence from the outset and where a midseason loss can kill your chances at winning a truly screwed-up national championship. They’re not like NFL or NBA seasons, where each team is basically what they are starting in training camp. They’re not baseball seasons, either, where the playoffs are such a comparably small sample size that all a fan can hope for is a division title — the rest feels like a crapshoot.
Instead, college basketball teams, the ones that compete in March, have similar blueprints: They roll the balls out in October, look terrible in November and December, coalesce in January, fade slightly in February, and, if they’re really good, peak in March when the games matter most. This blueprint hits close to home; just look at Michigan State this year. Or North Carolina. Or any of the teams still playing basketball next weekend. Or any of the 20 or so teams that lost last weekend that deserved to win. That’s the blueprint you’re supposed to follow.
I wish we could look back at IU’s season, as this TMA intends to, and say they followed the blueprint. A loss to a good Arkansas team under those auspices would have been OK. But we can’t say that. Instead, they didn’t push to the finish, or peak in their late games. They quit. They just quit. And for some reason, I’m not even mad.
I don’t think it takes any sort of expert in the field of season definition to tell us the overriding adjective to describe IU’s 2007-2008 season. If Big A were to put up a poll over on the right sidebar there, I have a feeling “disappointing” would win going away. This has been a disappointing season. We know this.
But this is not a post to lament the troubles of Kelvin Sampson, Eric Gordon’s recent struggles or Dan Dakich’s inability to get this team to play anywhere near the level Sampson had them at before he took his final bow. Oh no, this is a post to rally us all in one nation under Indiana hoops. So in an effort to convince myself we can actually win tonight — on the whole I’m not an overly positive person when it comes to this stuff so this is really a stretch — here are some quick, not-thought out-at-all positives. Because let’s be positively positive tonight, OK?
Eric Gordon. Yes, I know what you might be saying right now: “How can I possibly be relying on advancing to the second round of the tournament by way of Eric Gordon? The turnover machine? The guy that hasn’t hit a three since like, January?”
Let’s spin it this way, kids: isn’t he due for a big game? A game in which he’s raining threes from half court? In which he’s drawing defenses to him when driving — driving under control, might I add — to the hoop, handing off easy dishes to the rest of the squad. I’d say he’s been due for a few game to show us what he’s really made of. So why not tonight? (Just picture it in your mind for a second. Doesn’t it feel good?)
Strong out of the gate: In each of IU’s last three losses, they’ve trailed at halftime and in two of the games (Michigan State and Minnesota), they’ve trailed big early. Playing from behind is not advisable for anybody in the NCAA Tournament. And for a team that has struggled as badly of late as this one, another slow start could be a recipe for catastrophe.
Establish D.J. White: With IU’s recent struggles from the perimeter, it’s essential to establish White in order to free up some open looks for Armon Bassett, Eric Gordon and Jordan Crawford. Bassett and Gordon are shooting a combined 18.3 percent from three-point range on their last 53 attempts. As Terry Hutchens pointed out in today’s Indianapolis Star, White took just three shots in the first 12 minutes against Minnesota and in the Penn State game, he took just two shots in the first ten minutes. That’s not acceptable for a player shooting over 60 percent from the field.
Big game for Gordon: It’s been a while since the freshman had a solid shooting night. In fact, the last time he shot better than 50 percent from the field was on February 16 against Michigan State. In other words, he’s more than overdue for a hot shooting night. Gordon knows this is likely his only chance to make a run in the NCAA Tournament. It’ll be important to get him a couple of open looks early to establish his confidence. If the Hoosiers can get him going, the combination of White and Gordon is as good as any in the country.
Bad decisions. If you can boil down IU’s entire struggle with injured little meek please-govnah-don’t-hurt-us Penn State yesterday, that was it. Bad decisions.
Bad decisions from the three-point line. Bad decisions in the post. Bad decisions on defense. Whatever bad decision Jamarcus Ellis made in between now and last Wednesday. Most especially, bad decisions in the final minutes of overtime, a time when inside buckets could have helped keep the Hoosiers afloat. Bad decisions when IU opted for three-pointer after three-pointer. Bad decisions that neglected D.J. White too often and made IU look too little like the team it could have been on the eve of the Big Ten Tournament.
— The optimist in me wants to ignore the various deficiencies today. Instead, it would be just as easy to chalk this game up to late-season fatigue and apathy, similar to the ugly first 30 minutes of Wednesday’s win over the Tubby Gophers. Sunday’s first half was a display of rampant sluggishness, followed by a second half of disorganized frenzy. Both halves yielded very few made shots for IU. Neither of those things are necessarily an indictment of the team if they happen once or twice in a row, but now, since Kelvin Sampson was fired, they have happened five straight times.
We’ve been over this before, but let’s look at it again:
— Win at Northwestern, in a game that makes NU’s gimmicky offense and Kevin Coble look like UNC and Tyler Hansbrough. Lucky that Northwestern’s defense is just incompetent enough to keep IU in the game throughout.
— Win over Ohio State at home in a game that, as you were watching, felt like the Hoosiers should have been playing far more convincingly. That’s gut-feeling stuff and admittedly not very tangible, but you know what I’m talking about. (Though with Ohio State’s win over Michigan State, at least the Buckeyes look like a tournament team again.)
— The drubbing at Michigan State. Let’s not review that one again.
— Ugly 30 minutes vs. Minnesota. Eventual win thanks to briefly revived offense.
— Sunday’s loss.
See what I mean? There’s a trend there, a trend of serious systemic defensive problems, of sporadic offensive lapses, and of playing down to the level of the opponent. To chalk that up to bad shooting is to do a disservice to just how mediocre IU has been over the past three weeks. Three in a row is a trend. What does that make five?
This is weird. Isn’t it? Isn’t it strange to be in this position right now? To gather, as I did last night, with friends at a bar, to celebrate another game with a Fat Tire and a sandwich, and to know all along that no matter what happens, your team’s coach is going down? He can beat your most hated rival (who just so happens to be the Big Ten’s top team) and still, against his will, it will be the last win of his tenure.
That’s two such wins now. The first was Saturday against Michigan State, a dominating performance that showed a resilient team rallying around their coach. The second was last night. Was it me, or did the focus seem to shift? Maybe it was because I was in a bar and couldn’t make out the commentary very well, but did last night’s audience — swept up in an important rivalry atmosphere — seem to forget about the sanctions for 40 minutes? I know I did.
It will be jarring to lose Sampson on Friday, but at this point, I’m not sure his presence is needed on the sidelines anymore. Stay with me here. It’s hard to complain about distractions after two very solid wins, but Sampson’s saga is a distraction. His assistants have been coaching this team all year; no doubt IU’s players feel just as comfortable with each of them as they do with Sampson. (Perhaps moreso, given the player-assistant-as-friends dynamic a lot of teams have.) It will be a difficult adjustment, seeing Dan Dakich running up and down the sidelines, but if the Hoosiers showed anything last night, it was a level of maturity and self-definition that gives me confidence in the coming games.
But that confidence doesn’t mean part of me won’t miss Sampson. He’s only been here for two years, yes, and even if this eulogy is premature (we still think Sampson’s going to be suspended Friday rather than fired), it will be a different place without him. He’s a frustrating coach, but if the past two years have taught us anything about his style it’s that his teams improve. They get better. They can make you miserable in November and December and even January, but come February and March they coalesce. They play hard together. They defend. And they’re fun to watch.
It’s a shame we can’t have a third year, but it’s a self-inflicted shame. And we know what we have to do. The dog might be cute. You might love the dog. But if the dog can’t control his bite, you put him down. It sucks, and it’s sad, but it’s best for everybody.
Notes written while basking in the defeat the smug jackass to the right took last night.
First off, forgive us ITH’ers. E is still recovering from Super Bowl Sunday. Apparently he was drinking cranberry juice yesterday in an attempt to recover from a particularly debaucherous Saturday. In other words, he was already spent by the game last night.
So this is where you come in: Thoughts from last night’s game and discussion are welcome in the open thread version of “The Morning After.”
If you need talking points for discussion, here are a few:
Also, if you want to express your joy about the Patriots choking away their chance at history, those thoughts are also welcome.