On Indiana and playing with desperation

Indiana played better in Chicago. But why can't the Hoosiers play like that all the time?

CHICAGO --- Indiana accomplished what it needed to in Chicago this week. The Hoosiers won one game easily and pushed Maryland to the wire, and they did it with the kind of energy and effort that NCAA Tournament teams play with. They looked like a tournament team, and they will likely be one when the field is announced on Sunday.

But for crying out loud, why does it take getting pushed to the edge of the bubble to get this team to play with such a sense of purpose? Where were these efforts against Iowa? Or Northwestern in Evanston? Or Michigan State?

The truth is, this team plays best when everybody doubts it. It's when expectations are at their lowest that the Hoosiers stand up, join together, and work to prove the doubters wrong. But when people start to believe in them -- when they start making them a lock to make the NCAA Tournament -- the sense of urgency dissipates, and the Hoosiers struggle.

It's for that very reason that Indiana could be a dangerous tourney team, but it's also that reason that drives Indiana fans crazy. The Hoosiers only play with desperation when that desperation actually exists. Lose and you're out ... that's real desperation.

But good teams -- the best teams -- find ways to convince themselves that they must play desperate, even if they mustn't. Indiana hasn't learned to do that.

It's not all that surprising, really. Some of Tom Crean's best teams have been the ones that had little to no expectations before the season. Crean thrives as an underdog, and he's great at motivating his teams when others doubt them. But eventually those doubters become believers, and non-expectations become expectations. When that happened after Indiana's 5-1 start in Big Ten play, the Hoosiers didn't play as well. When those doubters reappeared after the Hoosiers closed the regular season with three straight losses, Indiana's sense of desperation returned, and they played better.

"Even I've been thinking, 'Where's that been at the whole season,'" Yogi Ferrell wondered aloud after Friday night's 75-69 loss to Maryland. "I'm just gonna keep telling these guys, 'Play desperate, play desperate.' We don't wanna lose, we don't want our season coming up short when we know we didn't give it our all."

If the Hoosiers get into the tournament, they will be an underdog throughout, so the desperation should remain. If they play like they did in Chicago, they'll be a dangerous team until the end. If they lose that sense of desperation, though, it will be a quick and quiet exit.

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