After every Indiana game, I talk to AAU giant Boo Williams, who also happens to be the uncle of Indiana sophomore Troy Williams. Lately, he seems to be repeating the same line in many of our conversations.
"Last year, they would have lost that game," he says.
Said it after the Butler game. Said it again after the Nebraska game. And he's right. Last year, the Hoosiers would have folded in the same situations. When double-figure leads slipped and they faced a second-half deficit, the game was over. It happened time and again.
So far this year, they're winning many of those games. By my count, they've won two out of three such games, beating Butler and Nebraska and losing to Georgetown after leading by 10 at halftime.
"It's a whole new year," junior forward Hanner Mosquera-Perea said.
So what gives? Better players, sure. But even more important to the Hoosiers' early success is their vastly improved leadership, an area in which they struggled more than people understand last season.
Tom Crean talked about it all the time. The players wanted to be buddies, he said, but they didn't want to hold each other accountable in the tough moments. They wouldn't.
When the tough moments came, as they do all the time over the course of a college basketball season, nobody stepped up and took control. Nobody put the team on his back and refused to lose. Quite simply, nobody wanted to be the leader Indiana so desperately needed.
The result: A 17-15 season in which the Hoosiers lost virtually every close game they played in.
"It takes a while for that maturity process to really kick in," Crean said. "Especially when they're away from your bench."
So when you look for reasons why the Hoosiers are off to an 11-3 start and are winning games they would have lost a year ago, leadership should immediately jump to the top of the list.
A couple of examples:
1. When Indiana coach Tom Crean and Nebraska coach Tim Miles met at midcourt for a verbal exchange during the Big Ten opener on New Year's Eve, there was Nick Zeisloft standing behind his coach, his hands on Crean's shoulders. Zeisloft is a redshirt junior, but he has been at Indiana for less than six months after transferring from Illinois State.
Still, though, Zeisloft has become a leader on this young Indiana team. When Devin Davis was struck by a car by teammate Emmitt Holt, Zeisloft was one of two players that addressed the media and answered all the hard questions. During one of the darkest times in the program's recent history, it was Zeisloft, a transfer who had no hand in the Hoosiers' off-court issues, that stepped forward and answered for the mistakes.
Then there was his actions during the Crean-Miles exchange. Zeisloft never opened his mouth, never mocked Miles in any way. He simply stood there was his hands on Crean's shoulders, calming his coach and making sure he didn't make a decision he would later regret. That would not have happened last season.
Zeisloft's 6.6-point per game average suggests he's a role player, but his presence has been much more significant to this team than can be measured in statistics alone. Zeisloft hits as many big shots as anybody on the Indiana roster, and he's not afraid to hold his teammates accountable.
2. Yogi Ferrell continues to learn what it means to be a leader, and his leadership continues to show itself in different ways. This season, he has put his team on his back and led them to a key victory by scoring (See: Butler), and he's led without scoring (See: Nebraska). Ferrell is showing a maturity he never had as a sophomore last season, and he's a major reason why the Hoosiers are winning games they never would have in 2013-14.
"It's usually not the offensive end where you have trouble closing [out games]," Crean said. "It's the defensive where they can't rely on their teammates on the bench and their coaches. They have to really rely just on each other. That's a huge, huge thing. And that's a sign of growth."
Ferrell has been a big part of that growth.
The Hoosiers certainly have their flaws, and the season is still young. But Indiana's success this season will ultimately be determined, in no small part, by the development of its leadership.