Indiana basketball fans have waited long enough.
In what appeared to be another season on the brink — three nonconference losses and the same frustrating, ineffective defense — the Hoosier faithful have enjoyed a different side of Indiana in the team’s recent stretch of wins, including its past four games that were all Big Ten Conference wins.
And after an 85-60 rout of Ohio State on Sunday, these Hoosiers are coming into their own.
The win capped a nine-game winning streak heading into a manageable Minnesota road contest Saturday afternoon.
The team’s last loss? A 94-74 beat down at the hands of the Duke Blue Devils — a game that the Hoosiers could have let define their season.
It was a game that appeared to be sending Indiana on a familiar downward spiral.
Instead, the Hoosiers are “improving” each time they take the floor.
Clearly, that’s all head coach Tom Crean cares about. In almost every recent news conference, especially since two losses in the Maui Invitational — no matter the question asked by the media — Crean refers to the team just trying to improve, in every aspect, everyday at practice.
Coach, what did you think of Yogi Ferrell’s performance today? Crean: “We’re just trying to improve every day.”
It’s a made up example but the point soaks through. Although rather goofy, that focus, coach-speak or whatever you want to call it is working.
And keep in mind, this was a team that was ranked as high as No. 15 in the preseason rankings, then dropped to a team some fans on Twitter called “embarrassing.”
In the blink of an eye, the Hoosiers went from a Sweet 16 team, to the laughingstock of a deeply loyal fan base. A large chunk of Hoosier Nation was even calling for Crean’s job. Sound familiar? It should.
Oddly enough, however, it’s all coming together without the team’s second leading scorer.
Sophomore guard James Blackmon Jr. (15.8 points per game) is expected to miss the remainder of the season after another knee injury (he sustained one this summer, too), but Indiana, behind key bench play and tight defense, continues to put up impressive offensive numbers. Even without sharp-shooting senior guard Nick Zeisloft, the Hoosiers hit their average in points scored and connected on 46 percent of their field goals, scoring 1.45 points per possession against the Buckeyes on Saturday.
Ohio State is no pushover, too, as the team sports a top-20 defense (68.0 points per game allowed before the Indiana game) and came into the contest riding a seven-game win streak.
Indiana had 48 points by halftime. The Buckeyes scored just 18.
“That was definitely the most fun basketball, a half at least, that I’ve played here,” said Ferrell, who leads the team in scoring at 16.9 ppg.
It’s the kind of fun Hoosier Nation has been itching for and only seem glimpses of. It’s like having appetizers but no main course, leaving you satisfied momentarily before eventually craving more.
Four players reached double figures in the win with junior forward Troy Williams scoring 23 points — with only one turnover in his aggressive, sometimes out of control style of play — and freshman forward Thomas Bryant having as dominant as a performance inside as Indiana has seen in recent years.
His stat line of 18 points and 13 rebounds was good enough to earn the honor of Big Ten Freshman of the Week.
The Hoosiers may have coughed the ball up 12 times on their own, but with a team as capable on offense as Indiana, turnovers are inevitable. They can mask those head-scratching plays and questionable shots with sound defense, low turnovers and rebounding — things the team did very well against Ohio State.
In Indiana’s last four conference wins, the Hoosiers are scoring 75.5 points per game while only allowing 64.75 — numbers that can be credited to the newfound sense of urgency. You don’t have to have a front-row seat at Assembly Hall to see it.
Freshman OG Anunoby has added energy, scoring and defense in an increased role with Blackmon Jr. out. He finished Saturday’s contest with seven points, four rebounds and three steals in just 19 minutes of action.
His development, mixed with the team’s recent brand of basketball, has been a major reason for Indiana’s progress.
But let’s be honest. Three non-conference losses, including one to one of the most respected programs in the country in Duke, would probably be fine at most college basketball programs around the country. But as Crean said when he first took the job in Bloomington, “It’s Indiana.”
And these Indiana fans just want consistency, particularly on the defensive end. This is the Hoosier State remember? Where a player diving on the floor for a loose ball ignites a fan base as much as a 25-foot-nothing-but-net jump shot. After back-to-back lousy postseason performances, including missing the NCAA tournament in 2014, Indiana’s time is now.
Because its basketball fans have waited long enough.
Kris Mills is a sports reporter for the Daily Reporter. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.