All summer long, Indiana was talked about as being "back": Back to national relevance, back to contender status, back to being Indiana. The off-court accolades – Sports Illustrated covers, preseason #1 ranking – have come, but on-the-court, we've seen an Indiana team that's been a lot of sizzle, but very little steak.
It's only January, so this is hardly a time to overreact to one loss, but last night's 64-59 setback to Wisconsin is cause for some concern. We're nearly two months into the college basketball season and Indiana's résumé consists of a neutral-court overtime win over Georgetown (who is currently 10th in the Big East standings), and surviving a frantic second half rally against Minnesota in Bloomington. That doesn't scream Big Ten Champs, #1 seed, and a coveted spot in the Midwest Regional to me.
None of this is meant to discredit Wisconsin's performance last night - they've been the league's most consistent team for a decade running. Bo Ryan has been especially unkind to Indiana, sporting a sparkling 17-3 record all-time against the Hoosiers, while notching his seventh win in Bloomington last night. That said, this is not a vintage Badgers' team with an All-League talent like Devin Harris, Kirk Penney, Alando Tucker, or Jordan Taylor. Though they beat up on Illinois this past weekend, Wisconsin had dropped their only three games (Florida, Creighton, Marquette) to RPI Top 25 opponents away from Madison, and inexplicably fell at home to NIT-bound Virginia. They had given up 84 points to Creighton and 74 to Florida, but completely stifled IU defensively, holding the Hoosiers to 23 points below their season average. Wisconsin can't out-talent Indiana, but they can out-tough, out-prepare, and out-execute them, and that's what happened last night.
So, what has been Indiana’s problem? It’s tough to pinpoint.
Indiana's top six is as good as any in the country. But, IU's depth, their biggest perceived strength going into the season, hasn't contributed much. Remy Abell has eleven points in four Big Ten games. Hanner Perea, who missed eight games due to a ridiculous NCAA suspension, is too raw for major minutes. Derek Elston has spent the entire year dealing with injury issues. Jeremy Hollowell needs seasoning, and it looks like Peter Jurkin is heading for a redshirt. Austin Etherington is done for the season, and oft-injured Maurice Creek (foot) is out indefinitely. The non-starters last night, a group that included Will Sheehey, scored a combined two points against the Badgers.
But, while the bench has been a disappointment, this is still one of the most balanced teams in the country, ranking among the nation’s top fifteen teams in offensive and defensive efficiency - even though that success has come against the 185th toughest schedule. Indiana has shown flashes of dominance, such as the first half of the Minnesota game, but have also disappeared over long stretches, like we saw them do against Butler. They need to find some consistency.
I'm nit-picking IU because the preseason expectations dictate that we do so. While Tom Crean should be commended for doing a terrific job in building the Hoosiers back up again, the fans are expecting this team to take the next step this season. Crean has already drawn plenty of criticism from his team being out-schemed and out-executed by Butler and Wisconsin squads with inferior talent. While he’s done enough to prove he’s a good coach, Crean has yet to prove thet he's a great one. His teams have only made the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament twice in fourteen seasons, and anything less than trip to Atlanta this Spring would be viewed as a failure by a fanbase that is looking for a sixth banner.
Crean has raised fan expectations at IU, and it's his job to now meet them.
It's only mid-January, so you can put the panic button away. However, if Indiana is going to contend, both in the Big Ten and nationally, then they can ill-afford similar efforts to what we witnessed last night.
Hoosier fans are passionate, and they're also demanding. The bar has been raised, and IU has yet to reach it this season.