Indiana Basketball has been beyond hard to watch since late February of 2008 when Kelvin Sampson’s situation came to fruition and he was forced to resign. The results of Sampson’s mistakes were catastrophic for a program that isn’t used to anything other than winning. While the level of horribleness that the basketball program felt was mostly self-induced with kicking people off the team and others leaving, Tom Crean entered the fold in the fall of 2008 with next to nothing.
Many around the state of Indiana were, understandably so, extremely impatient with the turnaround process and last season was the unwritten end of Crean's "grace period" if you will. He has had ample time to get his own players into the program and students, fans, and I’m sure the players, were simply tired of being embarrassed.
A program with such a storied history should not be relegated to storming the court after beating mediocre Illinois or Minnesota teams. That is simply unacceptable.
Not everyone has been as patient as they should be with the process. Many have rushed to judgment on Crean’s coaching ability. No one can doubt what he has done on the recruiting front since arriving. He has brought in some very good talent, but many questioned just how prepared his teams have been on a game to game basis.
I like Crean and believe in him as a coach, but part of me had to question what on earth was happening when in each close game for the last two years (his first year nothing was even competitive so it doesn’t count), the last five minutes would feature a complete offensive meltdown littered with infinite contested midrange fall away jumpers from Verdell Jones III with about 3 seconds left on the shot clock. This is not the type of offense that the Hoosiers used to be in those games, so I always wondered just what was happening.
On the other hand however, Jeremiah Rivers was simply a nonfactor on the offensive end. With him in the game, it was more or less playing four on five unless he was able to get the ball in space and use his athleticism. He was a great defender and fast as lighting in the open floor, but good god his shot was horrendous. Big man Tom Pritchard was also seeing way too many minutes, and he is, well, not very good.
This season however, seems to be very different. Rivers graduated, Cody Zeller has come in to take over the minutes Pritchard saw last year, and the rest of the youth movement on the team has had another offseason to work and get bigger, stronger and more skilled.
All of those factors have been paramount to this, still young, Hoosier team growing up.
After suffering through a first round exit with a team that had been in the top 10 for the better part of the season in 2008 followed by seasons of six, 10 and 12 wins, this season HAD to be different if there was any hope of keeping the boo birds quiet. It is very early in the season, but as far as the Hoosiers go, it seems to have a very different feel to it.
Yes, last seasons Hoosiers started 6-0, but they were all against the ultimate cupcake schedule. When it came time for that team to actually play someone, they crumbled.
This team has already had two tough tests, and passed with flying colors. Sunday, they really dismantled a Butler team, who certainly aren’t as talented as they have been the last two years, but I still think they will be tough as nails come February and early march. The defense they played in that game was by far the best I have seen them play in years and they were able to tally an extremely impressive 74 deflections. That stat alone shows the hustle this team is giving this year.
Last night, they went into a very tough environment against a good North Carolina St. team and overcame a 6-point deficit in the final few minutes and wound up winning, 86-75. This is the kind of game that the Hoosiers of old would have lost. It was very refreshing and rather shocking, honestly, to see them dig deep, not fold and keep playing the game that got them to that point in the game. Their defense again, was extremely intense, and they forced N.C. St. into a very sloppy affair.
What’s the difference? As I alluded to earlier, the simple factor of experience is enormous. Guys like Jordan Hulls, Will Sheehey and Victor Oladipo (Sorry Mike Patrick butchered your name for 40 minutes last night) have improved dramatically.
Along with them, the impact of adding Cody Zeller into the mix cannot be overstated. He has been every bit as good as advertised and really forces defenses to play them tougher at all positions, which will allow everyone more freedom in the long run.
This team certainly won’t be cutting down the nets this year and still has a very long way to go, but the improvement is there. The excitement is back in IU basketball and they will only get better.
Next Saturday will be one of the biggest tests of the entire season for the Hoosiers as #1 Kentucky comes to town. This UK team has at least six pros on it and even though they are young, they are very, very good. I believe even playing Kentucky close will tell a great deal about this Hoosier team. Other than that, I fully expect them to make some noise in the B1G.
If they keep competing at the level they have thus far this season, there is no reason they shouldn’t win their share of games. Even with a long way left to go, it appears as though IU being a doormat is a thing of the past.
Welcome back to the big kids table, IU. It’s good to have you back.
In honor of 7-0, enjoy singing Victor Oladipo