When the going gets rough...
Rematches are always interesting measuring sticks. Unfortunately, the Hoosiers haven't liked how they have stacked up this Big Ten season. Losses in rematches against Iowa, Northwestern, and Michigan have totally outweighed the measure of revenge they exacted in upsetting Minnesota. Overall, IU is 2-6 against teams they have played twice this season. More disturbingly, they are 0-4 against the conference's other cellar dwellers in Iowa and Northwestern, making them the de facto runt of the conference litter right now.
The good news for the Hoosiers is that their remaining schedule will certainly afford them the opportunity to climb out of the basement as nothing but marquee match-ups remain. No team will face a more challenging next two weeks than the Hoosiers, who will run the gauntlet against No. 8 Purdue, at No. 3 Ohio State, No. 12 Wisconsin, and then at heated rival Illinois 39 hours later to close out the season. A win in any of those games would put a whole new spin on the Hoosiers' season as they head into the Big Ten tournament.
"We play the top four teams in the league," Coach Tom Crean said during his Monday teleconference. "It's a great challenge, but we're trying to get our team to understand that it's an incredible opportunity. That's exactly how we're viewing it as a coaching staff. We want our team to view it that way, our fans to view it that way."
The bad news, of course, is that even Crean knows seizing that opportunity will be next to impossible if they replicate their effort against Northwestern last Saturday.
It's easy to find the culprit for the Hoosiers. Their offensive statistics this season on the whole are pretty fair (5th in scoring offense, 2nd in FG percentage, 6th in 3-pt FG percentage). Defensively, it's a different story (9th scoring defense, 8th 3-pt FG percentage defense, 8th turnover margin, and opponents have shot 166 more free throws). Late rotations, lazy/misguided fouls, and communication breakdowns continue to plague the IU defense. Indiana's latest defensive effort against Northwestern made their progress on that side of the ball against Michigan State, Illinois, and Minnesota in the past few weeks seem like a thing of the ancient past. One step forward, two steps back—it's a problem that Crean has focused on all season long, heck, during his entire stay in Bloomington. And it's clearly a battle that he's still fighting. The next morning after the Northwestern loss the team met at 7:30 a.m. and practiced for hours. The atmosphere was intense as Crean made no bones about his intent.
"(We're) continuing to search for people that have a mindset of what it's going to take defensively," said Crean the night before the morning session. "If it's not good enough at that point, we'll come back and we'll do it again. It's my responsibility, there's no question about that. There's absolutely no way of accepting the way we defended in those first 20 minutes."
Sunday morning's practice was reportedly a success, with Crean calling it "very competitive, very combatitive". The Hoosiers will need both of those traits in their no-holds barred rivalry game against Purdue Wednesday night. Crean hopes that his team heeded his message for more personal accountability to one another on defense and that it makes the difference against the Boilermakers. If it doesn't the only thing left to try may be 5:30 a.m. practices…which brings us to another coach trying to change the mindset of his team.
Wilson building up the troops
Coach Kevin Wilson met with reporters last week to give an update on the football program and where they stand now two weeks away from the start of spring practices. It was the standard fare, but one candid remark quickly stood out.
"A guy said today to me today ‘Coach we can support you any way we can, what do you need?" said Wilson. "I said give me a good attitude, because there doesn't seem to be a good attitude about our football team internally or externally."
It was a frank statement about one of the problems plaguing the IU football program right now. It's clear that the excitement and optimism of the Terry Hoeppner years has faded. What's crept back in is a guarded, cautionary optimism at best and a "here we go again" attitude at worst (something that Wilson's mass exodus of assistants hasn't helped, but that the coach makes no excuses for, insisting that he hired highly coveted coaches that left for what they saw as better opportunities). So far there is little that Wilson can point to that provides concrete evidence of winning ahead, but that doesn't mean he doesn't have a plan.
"I'm just trying to get them to have a good attitude," said Wilson. "So were just trying to lift their spirit and our mindset about how we perceive ourselves."
He's not doing that through "Kum Ba Yah" sessions around the campfire, though. He's doing it by convincing his team that there's a new sheriff in town with a new way of doing things and higher daily expectations. It's been evident to the players in their elevated off-season conditioning and weight lifting program (with mandatory 5:30 a.m. start times) and in the message that the staff is drilling into their team.
"We've been close in a lot of games," said Wilson. "The team is not that far off, but close and not winning doesn't cut it. Close sometimes isn't about the play call. It's the way you approach your work in January and February when nobody is watching. It's the way you approach your work in June and July when it's "voluntary". Well somebody is "voluntarily" winning and somebody is "voluntarily" losing. It's the way you go about your business that may get you over the hump."
Wilson says that his time with the team has already resulted in a hard-working group and that optimism is growing internally. Players are working hard to get better right now with the faith that it will lead to better results. Although the new five man strength and conditioning staff (the new NCAA limit) watching their every move certainly doesn't hurt either. So for now Wilson and his large staff are keeping a close eye on their team to make sure they are working hard to improve. The goal is that they won't have to this summer when they can't.