After all the off-court drama that brought even more uncertainty to an already struggling Indiana basketball program, Tom Crean and Co. are headed in the right direction. They are. This team will have many good days this season.
They've already had one of them, beating then-No. 22 SMU last Thursday night. That win quieted some of the detractors. It gave IU a little longer leash after the off-court issues shortened it.
Monday night, though, was not one of those good days. It showed us that this young, undersized Indiana team has a long way to go to get to the bright future that may be coming.
Eastern Washington 88, Indiana 86. This one hurts.
"We learned a lot from tonight's game," Indiana coach Tom Crean said afterward. "It's too bad that we lost it. If the rules weren't the way they were, I'd go back out and practice tonight. ... It's a tough night for us."
Eastern Washington is significantly better than every team IU has played this season, save SMU. EWU lost at SMU by only nine points. This didn't come completely out of nowhere.
But make no mistake about it: This was a bad loss, one that may haunt the Hoosiers if they're on the NCAA Tournament bubble when March rolls around. And, fair or not, Monday night's loss once again shrinks IU's margin for error, at least as far as the fans are concerned. They'll get restless a little sooner. They'll be less afraid to voice their displeasure. That's just how it is.
There were some positives that came out of Monday's loss -- Troy Williams and Yogi Ferrell were both terrific -- but there are many glaring weaknesses on this team right now that will keep the Hoosiers from winning at the level they'd like to.
1. There's no collective killer instinct on this team, and that has to change. The Hoosiers led by 12 points in the opening minutes against Eastern Washington, and then rebuilt the lead to 12 midway through the second half. At that point, it's time to step on the opponent's throat and bury them. It's time to kill the opposition's spirit, let them know that there is no chance they're winning at Assembly Hall.
Make a little spurt, push the lead to 18 or 20, and the game is over. Play passively and let the lesser team hang around, and disaster can strike.
It struck on Monday night.
IU never put Eastern Washington away, and EWU eventually made enough shots to pull off the upset. Good teams -- championship teams -- find a way to punch their opponent while they're down. So far this season, IU has effectively offered the opponent a hand to help them up.
"We've gotta learn, we're not gonna outscore the best teams," Crean said. "We'll outscore somebody, but we're not gonna outscore the best teams. You've gotta string stops together."
2. Indiana upset SMU with its collective unselfishness, but the Hoosiers got a bit selfish at the end of the Eastern Washington game. Facing the most adversity of the young season, Ferrell took the game into his own hands, and he gave the Hoosiers a chance to win late.
But when it came time to choose to pass to an open teammate or shoot a contested shot himself, Ferrell went with the selfish option, and the game was over.
Trailing by three, Ferrell drove into the lane, and three EWU players collapsed on him. Nick Zeisloft stood wide open at the 3-point arc. A 3-pointer, of course, would have tied the game.
Ferrell made a lot of great plays late, and truth be told, IU should have never been in that situation. But it was a selfish play by Ferrell, nevertheless.
3. Indiana's defense has been abysmal, and it hasn't gotten any better. Again, Eastern Washington is not a horrible team, but 88 points is far too many to give up to anybody. EWU got to the rim far too easily time and time again on Monday night, and Hanner Mosquera-Perea continues to be a ghost on the interior. IU needs production from Mosquera-Perea -- at least defensively -- and he hasn't come through.
Mosquera-Perea is often out of position, and he's so concerned with not fouling that he usually doesn't even challenge the shot. It got so bad on Monday night that Crean with with Williams at the five for long stretches and only played Mosquera-Perea for 14 minutes. After the game, Crean called Ferrell, a 6-foot guard, Indiana's best post defender.
Mosquera-Perea is hardly the only IU player struggling defensively, but he's been the most glaring liability.
"He didn't play very well," Crean said bluntly. "This was a game where you had be really locked in defensively, and he wasn't the commanding presence he's capable of being."
I do believe Indiana will have a good season and turn things in the right direction, but the Hoosiers have a number of things to clean up before they get there. Monday night showed us that.
"I'm so excited about this team," Crean said. "I love their spirit. If you write it as an excuse, it's because you think I'm making one. I'm not. They've had to do a lot, not mentioning how much they've been through off the court the last three weeks. I don't regret it, but it catches up with you. We're a team right now that has to have everybody clicking."
IU will have many bright days down the road, but it may take awhile to get there.