The fans are flocking back to Assembly Hall. The haters are in hiding. Indiana is 6-0 in the Big Ten.
The sixth win was the most pronounced, a 103-69 drubbing of Illinois Tuesday night at Assembly Hall. Last Sunday, the Hoosiers crushed Ohio State 85-60 in a game that really wasn't even as close as the final score indicated. (Indiana led 48-18 at halftime).
Few expected such lopsided results when the Hoosiers were run out of Cameron Indoor by Duke last month. But Indiana has won 11 straight games since then and have jumped back into the polls.
Many wrote the Hoosiers off after they lost two of three in Maui. Even more after the humiliating loss at Duke.
So what, then, are we to make of Indiana's 6-0 start? Have the Hoosiers truly righted the ship or do the results have more to do with the level of competition?
So far, Indiana has played and beaten:
- Rutgers (T-Last)
- Minnesota (T-Last)
- Illinois (12th)
- Wisconsin (T-10th)
- Nebraska (T-7th)
- Ohio State (T-4th)
That's not exactly Murderer's Row. Indiana hasn't seen Maryland, or Iowa, or Purdue, or Michigan State. The Hoosiers won't play any of those teams until Feb. 11. So how will they look when the more difficult part of the schedule comes around? Will this start matter in March, or will it become but a distant memory?
Here's what the Hoosiers have going for them: While they let bad teams like Rutgers and Minnesota hang around with them, they've also won some very lopsided games. That's significant because the Hoosiers aren't playing down to their level of competition, but instead are focused on self improvement.
They never let up against Ohio State, and they never let up against Illinois. If this was a team that was going to get smacked with it gets to the end of the schedule, that wouldn't be the case.
Indiana's overall chemistry seems to be stronger than at any point over the last two years. These guys are having fun together, and they truly don't seem to care about individual success.
"I'd rank it with my freshman year," said senior guard Yogi Ferrell, referring to the team with Victor Oladipo, Cody Zeller and others. "Just us being one mind. I feel like, collectively, we know what we wanna do. And when we know what we wanna do, we're unstoppable."
The most promising aspect of Indiana's turnaround is undoubtedly its improved defense, even though the offensive numbers have often been eye-popping. The Hoosiers lead the Big Ten in defensive efficiency in conference play, and they're still making steady improvement on that end.
Tom Crean hates getting questions that even remotely imply that Indiana is a better team without James Blackmon, but whether he'll say so or not, Indiana is a much better defensive team without him. Better team? I don't know. But certainly not significantly worse.
"We miss James Blackmon," Crean said emphatically and repeatedly. "We miss James Blackmon."
In fairness, there are two other factors to Indiana's defensive improvement that have nothing to do with Blackmon.
First, the Hoosiers improved numbers haven't exactly come against offensive juggernauts. And second, the sudden emergence of guys like OG Anunoby and Juwan Morgan have significantly improved the D. You could argue that even with a healthy Blackmon, Anunoby and Morgan still would have eventually burst onto the scene and made IU a better defensive team.
It's really easy to say: Blackmon went out, IU got better on defense. Thus, IU is better without Blackmon. I've heard such explanations from many people.
Blackmon is a poor defender, so obviously IU is a better defensive team without him on the floor. But Indiana's improvement cannot be attributed to any one single factor, but rather the combination of all the factors.
The simplest explanation for IU's improved defense is, they're working harder on that end. The raw effort is better. Was it Blackmon's fault that everybody wasn't work hard defensively? No.
"I think it's happened over a period of time," Crean said. "We're not really teaching different things. I was watching the Vegas [UNLV] game yesterday, and I was like, 'Wow.' We're so different because Thomas Bryant is different. There's a real commitment to getting better defensively, and the freshmen have really improved. It's not like we've done a lot of different things, we've just tried to get better at what we were doing.
"Early on, we weren't aggressive enough. Early on, we didn't have experience guarding good ball screens. When teams tried to really spread us out, we weren't as aggressive as we needed to be at moving on the pass. We'd move on the catch, so we'd be a little bit late. ... We can score points, but our identity has got to come from what we do defensively."
The bottom line is Indiana is 6-0 in the Big Ten, and it could easily be 9-0. The Hoosiers host Northwestern on Saturday, go to Wisconsin next Tuesday, then host Minnesota the following Saturday. Wins in Madison are never easy to come by, but this isn't the same Wisconsin team.
After that, the Hoosiers go on the road to Michigan and Penn State. Neither is an easy win -- Maryland recently lost at Michigan -- but neither is unwinnable, either. At worst, I would think Indiana would enter the tough stretch at 9-2. If that happens, the Hoosiers will be in contention for a conference crown.
So what do we make of 6-0? We make of it that Indiana has learned to bury an opponent when it has it down. We make of it that the Hoosiers are a maturing group that has learned the importance of defense. We make of it that ... the Hoosiers have become the team their critics wanted them to be in November.
"We definitely can't let up now," Ferrell said. "We want to be great."