Wednesday night’s home loss to Nebraska put another black mark on Indiana’s up-and-down season, but don’t sound the alarm on the Hoosiers just yet.
Something isn’t right when Tom Crean is at a loss for words.
Three times after Indiana suffered a shocking 87-83 home loss to Nebraska on Wednesday night, the Hoosiers coach said “I don’t know.” Mind you this is Crean, a man who rarely speaks in anything other than definite terms.
But the truth is, few know what’s up with this Indiana team that looks like a Final Four lock one night and an early exit from the NIT shortly after. The reigning Big Ten regular-season champions can’t build on big wins, yet don’t succumb to potential demoralizing losses. It has the college basketball world in a state of confusion that even Crean can’t comprehend.
“We’ve got to get out of it,” Crean said. “We’ve got to continue to understand how to not make the game hard for ourselves.”
This isn’t like one of Bill Walton’s eye-piercing, tie-dye travesties that blurs your focus on multiple hypnotic levels, yet admittedly can be entertaining. The Hoosiers are cloaked in black and white, with flashes of brilliance quickly turning to perceived boredom.
The Hoosiers had a something-to-prove mentality in their season-opener against Kansas, gritting out an overtime victory that caught the nation’s attention. Just 11 days later, they looked disinterested in a shocking overtime loss to IPFW in Fort Wayne.
That’s why many believed North Carolina would go into Bloomington and further expose Indiana on Nov. 30, but the Hoosiers led throughout in a nine-point victory that had everyone believing in them again.
How is it then they can look listless in the first half of a loss to Butler in Indianapolis, and then let the crowd sit on its collective hands for the majority of Wednesday’s home loss to a Nebraska team that, only 10 days earlier, fell at home to Gardner-Webb?
“Every game – no matter who you’re playing, where you’re playing – it’s going to be a fistfight, especially if you don’t come out right out of the gate and … let them hit you first,” guard Robert Johnson said. “I think a lot of guys will be able to see just how tough it will be going forward.”
One peek of the schedule is all they’ll need. Indiana faces No. 6 Louisville in a New Year’s Eve showdown in Indianapolis before hosting No. 14 Wisconsin on Tuesday. And the tests don’t end there during the rugged, physical and sometimes draining 18-game Big Ten schedule – one the Hoosiers navigated to a 15-3 mark and the regular-season conference title last year.
Yet this season’s Indiana team – supposedly better with James Blackmon fully healthy, OG Anunoby taking his game to another level with NBA-type talent and an improved Johnson – already has three losses despite a strength of schedule rating that is 64th in the nation, according to Ken Pomeroy.
Consistency is lacking. Blackmon has five games of at least 20 points, but four other contests when he’s shot worse than 40 percent. And Pittsburgh transfer Josh Newkirk has an ugly 1.69 assist-to-turnover ratio from the point guard spot.
Maybe Wednesday’s defeat woke up the Hoosiers. It’s happened before, granted only to fall right back asleep. The fact remains, though, that Indiana has the most talent in the Big Ten. It’s just a matter of them putting it together night in and night out.
“It’s frustrating, but all we have to do is bounce back from it,” sophomore big man Thomas Bryant said. “One loss doesn’t define us.”
Neither will a couple wins over top-tier opponents. Right now, the Hoosiers don’t have any sort of identity.