A little over one year ago, I piled into a car with Matt Dollinger and Tom Kirby and headed west to Spaceship Assembly Hall for IU’s first post-Eric Gordon trip to Urbana-Champaign. Less than nine minutes later, Dollinger was begging me to go pull the car around.
I bring that up, because many of you have, at various points this season, asked for more visible improvement from the Indiana basketball team than what you’ve seen so far.
Well, I offer you this: Just 385 days after a 24-4 game-opening run begat a 76-45 pasting at the hands of the Illini, Indiana took what some considered an NCAA Tournament team inside the game’s last second — literally — before succumbing by just two points, 72-70 in one of the Big Ten’s toughest road environments.
No, this isn’t a moral victory. Moral victories are stupid. Really stupid. Annoyingly stupid. This was a loss, and surely a tough one to absorb.
But if you don’t look at this game and see the obvious improvement, then your eyes are closed.
Sorry for the lack of writing from yours truly this week, but duties of the day job combined with a killer sore throat have left me sidelined for a few days. As I found my way back to the computer Thursday night, I stumbled across this piece from earlier this week by Matt Snyder at FanHouse.
Titled “Crean’s Hoosiers Still on Roller Coaster,” Snyder dives into Tom Crean’s first 21 months on the job in Bloomington. He mentions the complete overhaul the program underwent and also talks about the up-and-down play this season. Aimed more towards a national audience, none of this would be news to those of you that frequent ITH.
But towards the end, Snyder looks toward the future and makes a few pointed comments that seem to suggest that the honeymoon could come to an end for Crean next season. Here’s a few of them:
Crean will probably continue to receive a free pass as the team skates to its second consecutive season without a post-season game. That will all change next year, however.
There is no reason that the 2011 Hoosiers shouldn’t be a big part of Selection Sunday.
Remember when Crean took the job and, when asked why he took over such a dire situation, kept saying, “It’s Indiana” with a big smile? Well, come next season, the roller coaster isn’t going to be suitable anymore.
Beginning in 2011, the next time Crean doesn’t make the NCAA Tournament will be very problematic. After all, it’s Indiana. We don’t do roller coaster seasons. We do Final Fours.
Look, I think we can all agree that Indiana making the NCAA Tournament next season would be fantastic. But to say it will be “very problematic” if it doesn’t happen? I’m not buying it.
Winning on the road is never easy. It’s made even tougher when the only player on your roster that’s experienced a conference road win is a walk-on named Brett Finkelmeier.
But in what will be looked at down the road as a valuable learning experience for this rebuilding Indiana program, the Hoosiers went to Penn State Thursday night and left with a 67-61 victory. Even more impressive was this: Indiana never trailed en route to victory.
“They’re gaining conference,” Indiana coach Tom Crean told Don Fischer on the postgame radio show. “If you don’t have a win like Minnesota, the way that we won it, maybe they don’t feel like they can win this one. We held on. We got big stops. We attacked in press offense.”
The Hoosiers (9-9, 3-3 Big Ten) hit 9-of-20 from behind the 3-point arc, 10-of-14 free throws and committed just 12 turnovers to 15 assists. Devan Dumes, IU’s leading scorer last season, had a season-high 15 points.
“He really, really stepped up,” Crean said of Dumes. “I’m really proud of the way that he played. He made some big plays in 26 minutes of basketball. He answered the challenge of Talor Battle when Jeremiah (Rivers) had some foul trouble.”
After Indiana led 35-28 at halftime, Penn State (8-10, 0-6) opened the second half with a 12-5 run to tie the game at 40 with 13:44 remaining.
But unlike previous road games at Ohio State and Michigan where the Hoosiers had lengthy scoring droughts, Thursday was different: Indiana immediately answered with six straight points.
Penn State, which shot just 37 percent and got little offense besides 22 points from Battle, never got closer than three the rest of the way.
“Again tonight just like Minnesota, we went and earned the game,” Crean said. “We never lost the lead and that’s the key. We never had to play comeback on it. They bought into the fact that it’s not about running good offense, it’s about executing good offense.”
Verdell Jones had another game in double figures with 14 points, four rebounds and four assists and Christian Watford added 11 points and nine rebounds.
Ann Arbor, Mich. — To be fair to Indiana, the final score was not reflective of the closeness of the game through the first 35 minutes. To be fair to Michigan, it still wasn’t that far off after the last five.
On this night, it was the familiar blend of turnovers, poor shot selection and an overall lack of offensive rhythm that doomed Indiana in a 69-45 loss. The Hoosiers were just 1-of-15 from behind the arc, shot 36.5 percent from the floor for the game and committed 19 turnovers, leading to 21 Michigan points.
“We got a lot of good looks, but they just wouldn’t fall,” Verdell Jones said afterward, referring in particular to the 3-point shooting.
Indiana fans can take heart in the Hoosiers’ defensive effort, which the final score probably doesn’t do justice. The visitors forced 16 turnovers and never let Michigan find its 3-point shot, one of the Wolverines’ preferred scoring methods. And it wasn’t until late in the second half that Michigan truly pulled away — cued, unsurprisingly, by Manny Harris’ 17 second-half points, most of which came in the final minutes.
“Credit Indiana, they did a wonderful job,” Michigan coach John Beilein said after the game. “I was really impressed with how they played defense today.”