The time for improvement is nigh, as Big Ten season looms

  • 12/24/2010 11:18 pm in

BLOOMINGTON, IN - NOVEMBER 23: Tom Crean the Head Coach of the Indiana Hoosiers gives instructions to his team during the game against the North Carolina Central Eagles at Assembly Hall on November 23, 2010 in Bloomington, Indiana. Indiana won 72-56. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)Until about 24 hours ago, the doubt was cautious, compartmentalized. It’s now more general, and it’s spreading.

When we started talking about Indiana’s 2010 non-conference schedule, the conversation generally split games into two categories: the eggshell-soft home slate and the foggy tests away from Assembly Hall. Trips to Boston College and Kentucky, and games against Northern Iowa and either Colorado or New Mexico — that, it was reasoned, was where we would be able to form some sort of opinion about this year’s Indiana basketball team.

For two years, Indiana faithful lamented a schedule far too grand for its charges. In addition to its two ACC games and the annual rivalry with Kentucky, Indiana played in the Maui Invitational, a tournament in Puerto Rico, Gonzaga in Indianapolis and Pitt in Madison Square Garden, in addition to competing in an ever-improving Big Ten.

And the Hoosiers didn’t always come out better on the other side. But there were bright spots, like the home win against what we now recognize as a strong Cornell program, or winning the aforementioned game in New York.

Now, did this season’s non-conference home schedule weaken Indiana to the point of failure on its bigger stages? It’s doubtful that it’s so black-and-white, if only because nothing is.

But there’s evidence to at least suggest it hasn’t overly helped. Too many of this team’s strengths are bound, right now somewhat irretrievably, to its weaknesses.

Verdell Jones’ scoring potential on a team still sorely lacking it practically requires minutes – when he’s healthy – as does his leadership. But he’s also averaging twice as many turnovers (four per game) as anyone else on the team, a problem for a player whose best work is done with the ball in his hands.

Jordan Hulls has been as lights-out a shooter as Indiana has had in recent memory, when he’s been able to get off his shots. So why is he a distant fourth on the team in field goal attempts (70), behind Watford (160), Jones (115) and Creek (102)?

It’s too easy for defenses to remove Hulls from the offense – Hulls has taken more than seven shots just twice in IU’s 13 contests, when he scored 18 against Florida Gulf Coast, and 17 against Colorado.

We don’t need to chronicle Maurice Creek’s struggles, but would do well to point out something Dr. Greg Estes, an orthopedic surgeon at the Indiana Orthopedic Center in Indianapolis, told our friends at the Scoop directly following his injury last winter:

“With any kind of knee injury, whether it’s an ACL tear or a knee fracture or anything, that first season back, you can tell they’re just not their old self. It’s usually not until their second season that they’re back to what they used to be. That’s not a hard and fast rule, but it’s a pretty common thing.”

It’s unfortunate, and maybe unfair, but Creek is shooting south of 40 percent, and his scoring average has dipped under 10 points per game.

The list could go on, but it would simply belabor the point. Indiana’s non-conference schedule would only hurt if the Hoosiers let it, if they did not use the easier games to work out the kinks in preparation for the hard ones.

And so we find ourselves here, on the precipice of Christmas, with Indiana basketball 9-0 at home against mostly non-descript opponents, and 0-4 on the road and on a neutral floor against the more easily recognizable ones. That statistic is one from which there is no escaping.

There’s still plenty of season, and there’s still plenty of hope. In many ways, Penn State is probably the ideal conference opener for the Hoosiers – a team that’s never performed well against the Hoosiers and especially inside Assembly Hall, their last Bloomington trip excluded.

But the Hoosiers need to find their inflection point quickly, the one at which potential will finally give way to performance. That is the only way, in the end, in which teams are finally judged.

That moment needs to come now. They’re good enough. It’s time.

Non-sequitir: Merry Christmas and happy holidays. Thanks for making my first year at Inside the Hall immensely enjoyable and rewarding.

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