COLUMN: Time to respect the Hoosiers

Indiana moved to 4-1 in Big Ten play with an 80-74 win at Illinois on Sunday afternoon. The Hoosiers are 14-4 overall.

Nobody expected this out of Indiana.

Not after Noah Vonleh left for the NBA after only one year. Not after Luke Fischer transferred after one semester. Not after Indiana went 17-15 last season and missed both the NCAA Tournament and NIT. Not after Devin Davis was struck with a car by teammate Emmitt Holt and suffered a traumatic brain injury.

The Hoosiers were supposed to roll over and play dead. Tom Crean was supposed to be on the hot seat. The next time America heard from IU, this season would be but a distant memory.

But here the Hoosiers are, sitting at 14-4 and 4-1 in the Big Ten after beating Illinois on the road for the first time since 2008, 80-74, on Sunday. They've shut out all the outside noise, and they've quickly become one of college basketball's most-surprising teams.

It's far too early to predict where this team might be by season's end, but it's time that we recognize and respect what it has accomplished to this point.

Consider this: Before Sunday's game at Illinois, the Hoosiers were ranked 61st by KenPom.com. That's lower than UCLA, which has seven losses. That's 35 spots lower than Butler, a team Indiana beat on a neutral court. That's lower than Minnesota, a team with only one Big Ten win.

The computers, like the college basketball world, haven't had much respect for the Hoosiers. Now, though, they are forcing that to change. When the new polls are released on Monday, Indiana should be ranked in the Top 25. It deserves to be.

The wins have rarely been pretty, and few have come by wide margins. But time after time, the Hoosiers have found a way to win close games, something they seldom did a season ago. And they've done in, for the most part, in unconventional ways.

Even when healthy, Indiana doesn't have a true big man on its roster. And lately, the Hoosiers have been starting the 6-foot-7 Collin Hartman at center. Yet, through five Big Ten games, it hasn't mattered.

Crean has altered his playing style to fit this team, and they've gotten better at playing that way as the season has gone on. Despite their undersized lineup, the Hoosiers have been outrebounded only twice in five conference games.

If Indiana's early stretch of Big Ten games has taught us anything, it's that size matters less and effort matters more. The Hoosiers have made big shots in each of their four Big Ten victories, but they're winning close games because they are outworking teams late in games. Last year, that never happened.

Road wins are tough to come by in conference play, especially against a rival that is shooting the ball well like Illinois was on Sunday. The Illini made 12 3-pointers, five of which came from a guy that was shooting 26.6 percent from beyond the arc in Ahmad Starks. Nothing seemed to be going the Hoosiers way in the second half, and yet they never quit.

Whether you want to give it to him or not, Crean deserves credit for that. Many, if not all, of the flaws of last year's teams have been corrected. Even without a true post presence.

On Sunday, the Hoosiers won at a place they failed to win at as the nation's top-ranked team. And they did it in front of an Illinois home record crowd of 17,085. There's something poetic about that. Indiana is growing up right before our eyes.


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