Photo courtesy of IU Athletics:
For a contest that many penciled in as a needed win before the rigorous second leg of the B1G schedule, IUâ€™s Thursday evening contest with Minnesota unfolded in a way that few expected.
Despite a remarkable early season run, ample momentum and a spotless home record that led to Indiana being heavily favored, the Golden Gophers executed their game plan, threw the #7/#8 Hoosiers off theirs and toughed their way to a 77-74 victory.
The final score indicates a closely played game â€“ and it was a closely contested matchup right at the very end â€“ but Indianaâ€™s play bore minimal resemblance to the hard-nosed, gritty style that had earmarked this young season and netted the Hoosiers wins over the #1 and #2 teams in the country.
Instead of playing with the tenacity that had allowed the individual players to maximize their talents and allowed the team to achieve beyond the sum of its parts, Indiana looked a step slow and out of sync for most of the night.
A last-gasp comeback that ended up falling short provided a final score that looked a lot more respectable than it really was.
Make no mistake: this was not a game the Hoosiers had any business winning.
â€œWe just didnâ€™t have our edge,â€ a subdued Jordan Hulls said after the game. â€œWe didnâ€™t get the stops that we needed, let them get way too many open shots and didnâ€™t take away the things that we needed to. We were very poor defensively and needed to communicate a lot more. The whole thing was just not enough edge for us.â€
Hullsâ€™ assessment of his teamâ€™s â€˜edgeâ€™ seemed to be accurate. The â€˜50/50 ballsâ€™ (loose balls that could go either way) werenâ€™t going to IU; Minnesotaâ€™s jump-shooters had open looks in the first half; the Gopher guards went to the offensive boards and every time the Hoosiers looked to land a punch, Minnesota was ready and waiting to punch right back.
While the offensive execution needs to shoulder some blame (Indiana shot only 4-18 from beyond the arc and recorded only 6 assists to 15 turnovers), both Coach Crean and the players seemed to agree that most of the problems came on the other end of the floor.
â€œThis game starts with our lack of awareness defensively,â€ Crean said. â€œThe defensive awareness never got where it needed to be until the end of the game. I said to this team before the game and I said it all weekâ€¦ that teams who take the next step totally get that defense is what comes first in every situation.â€
â€œDefense creates the offense; defense creates more opportunities; defense creates the fast break,â€ he continued. â€œThe best teams gain confidence from their defense, not the other way around.â€
Crean wasnâ€™t alone in lamenting the Hoosiersâ€™ lack of defensive performance, as Hulls echoed his sentiments when asked about how Indiana needs to approach the game when the offense isnâ€™t operating at maximum capacity.
â€œWe have to play a lot better defense and let that create our offense,â€ he said. â€œWe need to be mature enough that when shots arenâ€™t falling, we need to create an edge some other way.â€
For good reason, most public attention will likely focus on an offense that didnâ€™t move the ball nearly as effectively as it usually does and a defense that failed to effectively communicate for the majority of the night.
What few are talking about though â€“ and what may play just as big of a role â€“ is how this team handles unfamiliar expectations.
IUâ€™s biggest conquests this season â€“ Kentucky, Ohio State and even Michigan â€“ have been games that the Hoosiers entered with the chance of victory ranging between toss-up and exceedingly unlikely. As a result, players seemed to enter those games with more of an edge and more of a chip on their shoulders. For that matter, so did the fans.
The atmosphere in Assembly Hall was different against the lowly Gophers than it had been in previous games against top-ranked opponents. The apparent lack of urgency that the players exhibited could also be detected from the fans who may have been guilty of not only thinking that Indiana could win, but expecting it.
In hindsight, the gameâ€™s result â€“ while unfavorable â€“ makes sense. The Hoosiers were coming off of one of their weaker performances of the year, and only beat a mediocre-at-best Penn State squad because of an obscenely hot day from three-point land.
Meanwhile, Minnesota entered the contest winless in four attempts in the B1G and Indiana represented the first top-10 team theyâ€™ve played all year. No one at Assembly Hall should have been surprised to see Tubby Smithâ€™s Golden Gophers bring their â€˜Aâ€™-game.
It makes sense that a flagging Hoosier squad that has soundly surpassed expectations would come out a little flat against a Gopher team that hadnâ€™t won a conference game. When taking into account IUâ€™s murderous upcoming schedule, including road games at Ohio State (hungry for revenge) and Wisconsin (where Indiana has never played well), that premise makes even more sense.
Itâ€™s hard to sustain the kind of intensity that Tom Crean likes to see from his teams over the course of an entire season, and while this team needs to do just that in order to be consistently successful, there will be nights that they come up short.
The Hoosiers are closer to the college basketball elite than they have been during the Crean era, which makes this type of setback that much more frustrating. Maddening as it is though, IU will need to deal with a disheartening loss the same way they dealt with their early season success: by taking the season one game at a time.
Tom Creanâ€™s penultimate statement of the press conference said as much.
â€œIâ€™m not going to overreact but Iâ€™m not going to underreact either,â€ he said. â€œWeâ€™re going to move forward from this in a quick way. Weâ€™ve got to get that edge back and Iâ€™m confident that we will.â€
The Hoosiers have preached consistency this season: not getting too up or Â too down. When they travel to Columbus this weekend, theyâ€™ll be back in familiar territory: their backs against the wall, a chip squarely on their shoulders.
They seem to be more comfortable in that position anyway.