COLUMN: Surging Hoosiers have blown off the ceiling of their once dead season

Another day, another blowout win for Indiana at Assembly Hall. The Hoosiers are rolling, and they're gaining believers by the day.

Another day, another 30-point blowout for Indiana at Assembly Hall.

Yawn.

Indiana 89, Northwestern 57. Nothing to see here.

The Hoosiers haven't played anybody, the critics say. And that's true. They're playing the soft part of the Big Ten schedule early, and they won't see any of the conference's top four teams until Feb. 11.

But this isn't just Indiana beating the Big Ten's weaker teams. This is Indiana running those teams back to whence they came, and usually by halftime. 

In their last three home games, the Hoosiers: 

  • Led Ohio State by 30 at halftime and won by 25
  • Made a school record 19 3s and blew out Illinois by 34
  • Made quick work of Northwestern in a 32-point rout

If the Hoosiers (17-3) were simply 7-0 against the schedule they've played, it would be encouraging but not convincing to Indiana fans. But it's not so much that they are 7-0. It's more about the way they've gotten there. 

The defense has improved leaps and bounds, the turnovers are down significantly, and Indiana's offense is much more efficient as a result. The Hoosiers could always score, but their recklessness on offense and inability/unwillingness to play defense put a ceiling on how good they could be. You can win some games if you don't guard anyone, but you're not dancing into the second weekend that way. Not a chance.

There's hope now for Indiana fans not just because of the record and the winning streak, but also because there's no longer a ceiling on the team. They blew it right off. If the Hoosiers keep defending the way they have lately, they can beat any team in the country.

"I thought their defense was locked in. There's a really good commitment on that end of the floor," said Northwestern coach Chris Collins. "When you add their offense to it, it makes them a really tough team to beat."

It's hard to believe, but a short 35 days ago fans were booing these Hoosiers as they fell behind Notre Dame at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The frustration had boiled over after a horrid start to the season that saw Indiana lose two out of three in Maui and get embarrassed at Duke. 

It was on that day that the Hoosiers learned how good they could be if they only played defense, and they haven't lost since. Twelve straight wins have silenced the critics and turned games at Assembly Hall back into the raucous environment for which it's known. 

"I think we need to learn from them," said Northwestern senior Tre Demps. "They're incredibly locked in, they're incredibly together, and they're playing incredibly hard. And it shows. You feel it when you're on the court, you know that they're a really good team. We have to take away what they've done and how they've turned their season around."

I've been around a lot of different basketball teams in my lifetime -- observed even more from afar -- and I'm telling you there's a special chemistry with this Indiana group. The Hoosiers are playing for one another and not for themselves, something that has not always been the case here. And they're playing with a swagger now that rivals what Victor Oladipo and Co. had.

"You can see it when you walk out and they're warming up," Collins said. "They're really confident right now. Sometimes when you lose some games early in the year you aren't as confident. They seem to have a great chemistry. I can't speak to what it was like earlier in the year because I wasn't around, but I love the way they share the ball. They're very unselfish and they really don't care who gets the shots."

The fact that Collins can see that from afar speaks volumes. The Hoosiers are confident because they're winning, and they're winning because they're turning the ball over less and getting stops more. 

It's by no accident that the Hoosiers are less careless with the ball. After a game at Rutgers, Crean started making the team run 17s when they exceeded a certain number of turnovers. The players don't like 17s, which feature 17 sideline touches in 64 seconds. If even a single player doesn't make it, everybody does it again.

Play recklessly, get punished. It's simple, and so far, quite effective.

"I give them chances. They can win certain competitions to buy out of it," Crean said. "We have the numbers, so they'll get one tomorrow night unless they buy out of it in sense of a competition. ... The bottom line is these guys are too good to be giving the ball back like that."

Indiana defensive improvement is equally simple to explain -- the players care more. They get enjoyment out of getting stops and forcing turnovers, and everybody's part of it. 

"I feel like we have a lot of confidence, especially defensively," Yogi Ferrell said. "We're playing loose out there. I think as a team we probably don't even think this is our best defensive game. Probably one of our worst -- not one of our worst, but we definitely had stretches in there where we know we can be better. I feel like we're going to get to the film and watch it, and see we can be better."

That, ladies and gentlemen, is among the chief reasons for Indiana's turnaround. Those words wouldn't have come out of Ferrell's mouth a year ago. Weren't good enough defensively after a 30-point win? Immediately talking about watching film to improve on defense? 

That quote sounds like it came from a coach. The fact that Ferrell said those words is a perfect example of how he has matured in his senior season, and how he has finally grabbed hold of the leadership role after years when Crean felt like his words were falling on deaf ears. 

"I called a timeout and gave him the huddle because we needed to get our pick-and-roll defense fixed," Crean said. "I'm very comfortable doing that with him. He just takes a seat, and I stand behind him or stand on the side. That's the kind of ownership you want from a guy like that, but it's got to be his idea, right? Because it can be a coach's idea all you want, but until the player makes it his idea, you're never going to get the full effect.

"He's made it his idea."

As balanced as the Hoosiers may be, make no mistake: this is Yogi's team. And now that the they're are off to a good start, it will be his responsibility to make sure things don't go astray again. 

How good is Indiana? I'm not sure yet. That answer will likely come when the Hoosiers face real adversity down the road, when they're down double digits on the road, or when they lose a game or two. Indiana will not go 18-0 in the Big Ten, so adversity will come. When it does, how will the Hoosiers respond? How will Ferrell demand that they respond?

The answers to those questions will tell you just how good the Hoosiers can be.

"He can't revert back. He's a very smart player, one of the smartest players I've ever had the privilege to coach. When you've got a smart player like that, you want them to share that knowledge. And you want them to share it in real time, not just film sessions, which he does, and not just halftime or post game, which he does. But in real time while the game is flying."

Questions remain about the Hoosiers, but there's no longer a cap on how far they can go. For Crean, that has to be the most exciting part of Indiana's resurrection. 


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