If there's one thing Indiana's crop of freshmen took from the 2004-05 basketball season, it's hard feelings.
Yes, there were hard feelings about what unfolded during Indiana's occasionally promising, more often tumultuous 15-14 campaign that ended with a thud against Vanderbilt in the first round of the NIT. But those hard feelings weren't directed toward one another or the coaching staff or the fans – instead, it was pointed at themselves.
"I came away from last year just feeling like I could have done more," said A.J. Ratliff.
Usually, the responsibility of righting or even wronging a basketball season doesn't fall on freshmen, let alone a freshman class. But with arguably the country's No. 1 crop of recruits arriving last season, Ratliff, D.J. White, Robert Vaden and James Hardy all expected to make significant contributions and accepted the responsibility of returning the IU program to national prominence.
The contributions were certainly there by the talented quartet, but Indiana basketball suffered through a mediocre season by national standards and an anemic one by Indiana's norm. Despite lofty aspirations, Indiana remained hidden in the background on the national landscape.
That didn't sit well with anyone around the program, most of all the players. Each has said he came to Indiana for a chance to compete for a national championship, not to bow out in the first-round of a second-tier postseason tournament.
"We know what we did last year, and we don't want to go through another season like that," said D.J. White.
So as this group prepares for Round Two of their college careers, they don't have any NCAA or Big Ten Tournament success to draw upon. But last year wasn't without plenty of lessons learned. The bitter taste of losing, first and foremost, is something this group has experienced once, and they're determined to not suffer through a season of it again.
"You know you're better than this team, so why didn't you beat them? That type of thing is the sort of feeling we had," said Ratliff. "We know we have to do those little things like calling out screens and screening out help side, doing the little things, because now you know it's big in games."
Those little things were big deals in a pair of season-ending debacles against both Vanderbilt in the NIT and Minnesota in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament.
"Last year is a big motivator," said White. "We're taking a lot of heat. The coaches are taking a lot of heat. We know what we did last year, and know what we have this year and how we can improve.
"We're anxious to get on the court, especially with a couple of those big games in the preseason."
There's no question that Indiana will get its chance to move from the back pages to the front pages once again with highly-anticipated non-conference encounters with a quartet of nationally-ranked programs. The biggest of those games will come in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, when the Hoosiers host preseason No. 1 Duke.
"We have a couple of big games in the preseason, and we're ready to show people that we're serious this year, that we can compete for a national title," said White.
Winning a game against a program like Duke or Kentucky would do a great deal to move the IU program toward the goal of being a team to be reckoned with once postseason play arrives in March. After all, Indiana players and coaches have set the bar extremely high for 2005-06, and no one appears to be backing away.
"Like Coach (Mike) Davis said, we want to be No. 1 in everything that we do," said Ratliff. "It starts now."
Basketball's Bitter Feelings
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