INDIANAPOLIS -- It certainly felt like a big game. Sellout crowd, national television audience, two ranked teams built on longstanding success duking it out on the hardwood.
But Saturday’s Countdown Classic between No. 16 Indiana and No. 6 Louisville amounted to nothing more than a well-publicized practice session. The outcome doesn’t impact conference standings and likely won’t hinder either team punching its ticket to March Madness.
So excuse Hoosiers coach Tom Crean’s casual demeanor after his team’s 77-62 loss. He wanted to win, certainly. Wanted the Hoosiers to shoot better than 4-of-21 from behind the 3-point arc, wanted Robert Johnson to shoot better than 1-of-13 from the floor and for James Blackmon to score more than 11 points.
I’m sure he also wanted to avoid a two-game losing skid, the jeers of IU fans at Bankers Life Fieldhouse and the ever-present ire of Hoosier diehards elsewhere. But he knows the real season is still a few weeks away.
Crean won’t lose sleep, and he shouldn’t. But a loss like this feels all too familiar of the Crean era, too reminiscent of the many games before and those yet to come. It was a game in which the Hoosiers looked to demonstrate their resiliency and re-establish their claim to rank among the nation’s best.
Instead they were a team devoid of rhythm and urgency, one visibly flustered by Louisville’s length and pugnacious defense. The Hoosiers commit 14 turnovers (12 in the first half), and came up empty during several late-game possessions in which players dribbled into oblivion as the game clock ticked away.
“We weren’t making the cuts,” Crean said. “We weren’t cutting off the post. That’s where we got out of character. Our offense is movement, and it’s not just the ball moving, it’s the body moving. It’s getting lost in the game.”
The loss gives Indiana a 2-3 record in its last five games. But while the outcome doesn’t mean much, the execution does. And we’ve seen all this before.
First, let’s go back to 2008, wherein Crean took over a Hoosiers program devastated by scandal and crippled by NCAA sanctions. He grit his teeth through three forgettable seasons, going 8-46 in Big Ten play while patiently rebuilding.
Those dark days from nearly a decade ago are no longer a worry to IU fans because of Crean’s efforts. The Hoosiers have a 56-35 record in conference play since 2011 and a pair of regular season titles to boot. Crean has attracted major recruits (Cody Zeller), developed lesser-knowns (Victor Oladipo), recruited one-and-dones (Noah Vonleh) and four-year mainstays (Yogi Ferrell).
Crean has done plenty right with the Hoosiers and his efforts should always be recognized. But during Saturday’s loss, in which the up-tempo, high-scoring Hoosiers were grounded by a Cardinals team that allows just 60 points per game, I thought about similar moments.
I thought about 2013, when a No. 4 Indiana team with Zeller and Oladipo got bounced from the Sweet 16 after it couldn’t solve Syracuse’s 2-3 zone. I thought of last year, when a team with a 25-7 record dropped its Big Ten Tournament opener an unremarkable Michigan squad. I thought about Crean’s tournament record, a so-so 6-4 with not one trip to the Elite 8.
IU has seen success under Crean, but it always feels stunted, as if there could have been more.
Take this season, in which the Hoosiers knocked off Kansas in overtime and outplayed North Carolina at Assembly Hall. Both the Jayhawks and Tarheels ranked No. 3 in the country at the time, giving Crean and the Hoosiers signature wins.
But then came the ever-pesky Bulldogs of Butler, who handed IU a five-point loss, one sandwiched by inexplicable defeats to IPFW and Nebraska. Crean sees the glass as half full, IU fans beg to differ.
For every Christian Watford buzzer-beater, there’s an early exit from the tournament. For every big-time win, there’s an equally big enigma.
And Crean knows it, too. He knows this team has to play better than the ineffective and stagnant one that took the court today. But it’s not the poor shooting that concerns him as much as it is the defensive side of the ball.
“When we’re not shooting the ball well, we have go to outgrow quickly not playing as well as we need to play on defense,” Crean said. “... We might have been better today but we still lost the game by a margin. If there’s a common theme in when we struggle, it’s when our shooting is not where it needs to be, and we don’t continue to come down there and just bust out those stops, and that’s the tipping point right there.”
Here’s hoping the Hoosiers outgrow their mid-season blues, and that Crean delivers the consistency his tenure in Bloomington hungers for.