Tom Crean was on the recruiting road. Yes, there’s a HUGE game with No. 2 Ohio State coming, and heaven knows the Hoosiers need plenty of work, but passing on the future isn’t part of Crean’s plans. He’s a driven guy pushing to return the program to glory and the No. 1 key -- even more than Xs and Os, offense and defense, motivational methods and everything else -- is getting really good players.
Bob Knight didn’t set a record for victories by having mediocre players. John Wooden didn’t win all those national championships because of his pyramid of success. They had great players. NBA-caliber guys.
So Crean mixed practice with recruiting Thursday (he saw the Hall of Fame Classic in New Castle that included Washington standout Cody Zeller) as the team prepared for -- depending on your perspective -- a chance to make up for the Penn State mess or another reason to drive fans to party hard to drown out sorrows while bringing in the new year.
Second-ranked Ohio State is 13-0 and looking to crush the Hoosiers (9-5 overall, 0-1 in the Big Ten) like it has everybody else this season. It has veteran guys, big guys, super-talented young guys and good-shooting guys. What it doesn’t have is a game-changing point guard, a flaw that might cost the Buckeyes come NCAA tourney time.
In an ideal world, the Hoosiers could exploit that, but if you’ve followed them the last week or two, you know idealism isn’t part of the picture.
IU has to play tougher. It has to sustain what it does some of the time and make it all of the time. If it does, it can win. If it doesn’t, well, been there, done that.
Guard Jeremiah Rivers insisted the Hoosiers’ confidence is not shaken from their three-game losing streak low-lighted by their Big Ten-opening home loss to lowly Penn State.
“It’s the Big Ten season and we have 17 games left. It’s no time to hand heads. If we do it will have a snowball effect. The losses will rack up if we continue to pout, woe is me. Misery loves company. We have to come out (tonight) ready to kick some butt. That’s how I look at it.”
Here’s how Crean looks at it courtesy of an IU release:
“We have prepared mentally and physically to improve the last few days. Our players have a mindset to improve and compete. Our willingness to carry that over for 40 minutes is our biggest challenge.”
A cynic could argue that Ohio State itself is the biggest challenge with its superstar freshmen (Jared Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas) and savvy veterans (Jon Diebler, Dallas Lauderdale, William Bufford and David Lighty).
You get no argument from Crean.
“They have anywhere from six players on up who will have the opportunity to play at the NBA level someday. They will be a challenge for 40 minutes.”
You can’t miss the “40-minute” theme here. Consider the Penn State loss. The Hoosiers rallied from a 14-point deficit to take a one-point lead, then faded down the stretch.
“With 2:28 left we lost, maybe ‘belief’ isn’t the right word, but our hope,” Crean said.
He’s seen that before, and he’s tired of it. So are Hoosier fans.
“A lot of progress has been made with this team,” Crean said. “We have to buy into the corrections. Get things corrected and keep moving forward. I’m looking to see that in our eyes.”
Here’s what we see in the Buckeyes. They are the Big Ten’s top scoring team (82.6 points) and stingiest defensive team (53.8 points). They also lead the conference in scoring margin (28.8), field goal percentage (50.0), rebounding margin (8.4), steals (9.08) and turnover margin (plus-8.23).
“Ohio State plays with great efficiency on both ends of the floor,” Crean said. “Their team defense and ball movement look to me to be as good as any we have watched live or on film. Their inside-outside attack is unmatched thus far in the season.”
IU can’t match that unless it plays to its potential and not its fears.
Crean calls these “effort and belief related mistakes.”
“We missed some big plays. That’s going to happen. A missed block-out on a free throw? That can’t happen.”
It did against Penn State. Now, if the lesson is learned, starting with Ohio State, then it’s a positive. If not, well, either Crean isn’t making the point strong enough or his players aren’t receptive enough when he is.
The Penn State loss personified the Hoosiers’ weaknesses. It changed everything. IU went from a team with NIT prospects (a natural progression in the massive rebuilding process) to, perhaps, another horrific Big Ten finish.
It’s not too late. The Hoosiers can grow up, man up and get it right.
The sooner the better.