As the Hoosiers head into the Christmas holiday, they do so playing their best basketball of the young season.
Indiana was up and down out of the gate, often coming out sluggish against inferior competition. The Hoosiers couldn't rebound, struggled to defend the drive, and against Eastern Washington, struggled to defend the 3.
The Hoosiers lost to Eastern Washington, causing many to write off the young Hoosiers as just another mediocre team. I said this at the time: Bright days are ahead for these Hoosiers, it may just take awhile to get there.
Now, nearly a month later, the Hoosiers are a much different team, mostly because they've learned how to be more consistent from game-to-game. A loss to No. 4 Louisville in New York woke the Hoosiers up, and they've responded accordingly.
In a nutshell, this is why Indiana is heading into the holiday season with positive vibes: Troy Williams and Hanner Mosquera-Perea are playing like different players, IU has learned how to close games, and the Hoosiers have improved their weaknesses (those weaknesses being defense and rebounding.)
1. After IU lost to Louisville, Tom Crean sat Williams and Mosquera-Perea down and told them this: If we are going to be a good team this year, you guys are going to have to play better. And they've responded accordingly.
Since that game, here's a look at each player's numbers (in three games):
44 points (14.7 ppg)
18-31 FG (58 percent)
25 rebounds (8.3 rpg)
8 assists vs. 4 turnovers (2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio)
31 points (10.3 ppg)
11-19 FG (57.9 percent)
22 rebounds (7.3 rpg)
Williams has stopped attacking so erratically and has instead stayed in control and made simpler plays. He's passing better. He's finishing around the rim. And perhaps most importantly, he's not turning the ball over.
When Williams is making his shots around the rim, there are few people in college basketball that can stop him.
There was a play during the second half of Monday night's game against New Orleans when Williams caught the ball wide open on the right baseline. Last year, he would have taken the 3-pointer, without a doubt. But instead, Williams swung the ball and Indiana got a layup.
Williams has only attempted two 3-pointers this season. He recognizes that is not his strength, and he has cut them out of his game. That's growth.
Mosquera-Perea's three-game span has been even more impressive and, honestly, more significant. He's leaving his feat on shot fakes less and blocking shots more. He's attacking the glass and rebounding better than he ever has. And he's finishing around the basket better than I thought he would at any point this season.
There's no doubt Mosquera-Perea gained some confidence because of how he played early in the game against Louisville. He dominated Chinanu Onuaku on the offensive end, but did most of his damage in the first few minutes. Still, it was a stepping stone, and an important one at an important time.
"Hanner walked out of that game knowing he could score, and knowing he could score in a one-on-one situation against length and against good people," Crean said. "That really helped him. I've seen it even more in practice, more leadership in practice. His confidence just continues to grow. He has taken his time in the post. He slows it down, he's not in a rush."
2. Early in the year, Indiana couldn't close an opponent out. Simply could not. Too immature. And the Hoosiers paid the price when Eastern Washington hung around and ultimately beat them.
They've since started to learn that lesson, and IU's ability to close out Butler on Saturday was a huge step in that area. In a close game against a good team, Yogi Ferrell took over the game and led the Hoosiers to victory. For a young team trying to learn its identity, a performance like that should not be undervalued.
Closing games, though, is always a work in progress.
"We don't aways keep the hammer down, and that's going to catch us," Crean said. "We have got to outgrow that."
3. In time, the undersized Hoosiers are starting to understand how to gang rebound. Louisville dominated IU on the boards, and again, that likely served as a wake-up call. The Hoosiers have won the battle on the boards three straight times since that game, including one against a good rebounding team in Butler.
The Hoosiers are in no way a finished product, but during a non-conference season in which the Big Ten continues to show its mediocrity, Indiana is trending in the right direction while other traditional powers are not. The Hoosiers head into a critical stretch of their season on a high note.