The real difference a year makes

  • 03/11/2010 10:02 pm in

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.

I’ll acknowledge that this team has serious problems. We could find most of them, you and I, if we took a trip down Thursday’s final stat sheet … so why don’t we?

Nineteen turnovers to 10 assists, that’s a familiar tune. Seventeen offensive rebounds allowed, although 14 were also collected. Northwestern ending the game on a 37-15 run should also be chucked into this conversation as well.

But these are mistakes that get ironed out with experience — correctable mistakes that, when they’ve played well and flashed future potential, we’ve seen the Hoosiers overcome.

Last season, there was an unspoken understanding that progress was going to, at a given point, grind to a halt from which it could not be retrieved. This season, if at times so slowly, Indiana still kept growing, and though it’s hard to see, it’s in that slight difference that measurable steps can be taken.

Players provided examples:

Christian Watford: “We get real tentative under pressure is one thing. And that happened today also. We had some key turnovers late that cost us the game. With time and with experience, that won’t happen.”

Derek Elston: “In the beginning, a lot of people could have said rebounding. But, you know, we took rebounding to the next level after that, so really, just everybody’s kind of got to work on their own, individually. That’s one thing that I think is the only thing I could really look at right now.”

Obviously, it doesn’t happen with words, and it certainly doesn’t happen in postgame locker rooms following conference tournament losses. But, more often than not, it happens.

Accuse me of being soft on Tom Crean, or soft on this team. Go ahead, I don’t care. Last weekend, I trekked up to Milwaukee for the Notre Dame-Marquette game, and I saw a team two years removed from Crean that still bore his wax seal — they played fast, moved the ball, cracked down on defense, and, as of the writing of this column, have taken a projected 13th-place finish in the Big East and won 22 games and a spot in the NCAA tournament. Buzz Williams obviously deserves plenty of credit, but so does the man who put his team together for him, and not just in recruiting.

I’ll be perfectly honest — I don’t know if Crean’s ceiling as a coach is high enough to return Indiana to where it wants to go, I really don’t. But I do know that two years, given the depth of the task Crean faces, is not enough time to celebrate or condemn his work. Progress has been made, if by no other measure than in wins. (Which also happen to be the simplest in this business.)

Nearly every college basketball season must end in defeat, it’s the natural order of things. And every end-of-season locker room often overflows with talk of next year, of belief, of meaningful, touchable, impactful improvement, and Indiana’s was no different.

But when Jordan Hulls had a chance to speak rhetorically, to spout off the same tired-but-indestructible lines every 10-win basketball team must cling to for survival, he talked about rebounding.

Call me crazy, but that’s progress.

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