One step forward, one-and-a-half steps back. That seems to be the case for the Hoosiers this season. The team's youth was on full display during its first true road trip of the season vs. Ohio State, and the Hoosiers' lack of consistency from a win over Michigan on Dec. 31 to a loss to OSU on Jan. 6 was a sure sign that this young team has a long way to go.
Head coach Tom Crean has some serious issues to face as the Big Ten season gets warmed up. IU's lack of a scorer who can create his own shot on the perimeter was a huge problem against the Buckeyes, as was the team's inability to avoid silly turnovers. For much of the first half in Columbus, Indiana actually had more turnovers than shots, and the offense stagnated due to a lack of athleticism on the perimeter.
The Hoosiers are young, and winning on the road in the Big Ten is difficult for even a veteran team. Indiana will have to quickly put the Ohio State game behind it, especially with Illinois coming to town this Saturday. IU has played well at home and has shown plenty of poise during the non-conference season according to Illini coach Bruce Weber.
"Indiana plays much better at home than on the rode. We have to come to play. Anytime you're on the road, you have to play good basketball and take advantage of your opportunities.
"Indiana got out of rhythm early against Ohio State. They caught Ohio State at a bad time, having lost two and with Evan Turner coming back, playing at home, great energy early. Turnovers, missed little easy shots and it kind of snowballed and got away from them as it went on.
"If you compare scores with last year, a lot of teams beat them soundly on the road, but when they had to go to their place, (it was a different story). Tom (Crean) has been able to get them to play with a great deal of energy at home. We're gonna have to match that. That will be a key for us if we're gonna have success."
Illinois beat them in Bloomington last year, but it wasn't easy.
"Last year we played with great motivation against them both games," Weber remembered. "We jumped out on them and set the tone. We probably played as well as anybody at their place. But even then, they made it a game second half. We had to make some plays down the stretch to get a victory."
Indiana is still in a development process, and most of its best players are youngsters. The loss of freshman Maurice Creek to a season-ending injury hurt also as he was their leading scorer and three-point shooter. But they have enough talent to be competitive against most teams.
In Creek's absence, Champaign sophomore Verdell Jones (6'-5", 176) leads the team with a 13.1 scoring average, and he averages over 3 assists per game. Freshman Christian Watford (6'-8", 215) is next with a 12.8 average. He also pulls down 5.5 rebounds a game. Junior transfer Jeremiah Rivers, Doc's son, comes in at 6.9 points, 5.8 rebounds and 4.5 assists a game.
Others who have made contributions to the Hoosiers include freshman Derek Elston (6'-9", 220), senior Devan Dumes (6'-2", 188), sophomore Tom Pritchard (6'-9", 242), freshman Jordan Hulls (6'-0", 170), and freshman Bobby Capobianco (6'-9", 230).
Weber respects the talent on the IU team.
"We've seen improvement in Verdell Jones. He can create for some guys. The young freshman (Christian) Watford gives them some scoring inside. He isn't a big, physical body, but he gets some points in the paint. I think that'll be a key for us, if we can go inside and then also do a good job of clogging up the middle for them because they do like to get to the basket."
After encouraging a faster paced game with more scoring early in the year, Weber has now pulled in the reins and is subbing for defense rather than offense. And he is insisting on better shot selection. It worked against Iowa at home, so the question now is whether the Illini can continue their improvement on the road.
"I think watching the film, realizing how bad we were defensively, hopefully things are starting to click. But also juggling the lineup. We had some guys who hopefully take more pride in defense than the guys that sat.
"And maybe a little bit of a message too from me. It's got to become a priority or we are gonna play other guys. I told them I'm gonna sub defensively. When we had guys break down or not make the hustle plays, we took them out."
"Yeah, I think so," Weber hopes. "We had a good start, that was the most important thing. We'll make a decision on who's gonna start after we see how practice goes.
"With this group, I might have to keep them on edge a little bit. We have a tendency to be laid-back with a little complacency. You learn about groups and coach them as the season progresses. I don't like to play mind games, I'm not smart enough to do that. If they're not performing or producing, I may have to let somebody else get the start. Maybe it will keep people on their toes."
Dominique Keller led the Illini in points and rebounds against Gonzaga. Is he also being considered a possible starter?
"If he performs well and Mike Davis or Mike Tisdale doesn't, then he might start. But we can't put him in at the three like he hopes. We just wouldn't have enough ball handlers and defenders on the perimeter. It wouldn't be a good match.
"He can give us a spark off the bench. We know he's gonna put shots up, and you just hope they're going in. When they go in, he seems to play with a lot more energy. He got his career high in minutes against Gonzaga. He was our leading scorer, but what I liked was that he had 9 rebounds and led our Play-Hard chart. Those are things he can do all the time."
On paper, Davis appears guaranteed to start. But there is more to the game than points and rebounds.
"If you look at his numbers, he's one of the tops in the nation in double-doubles. But I think stats don't always show everything. I'd like him to be a little better defensively, a little more aggressive and get more offensive rebounds.
"You know, make a commitment to really hit the boards when he's not hitting his shots and get a putback or two a game. With him as with all our upperclassmen, just consistency. That we know every day what we're gonna get out of him."