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Hoosiers remain focused after wild week

12/18/2011

INDIANAPOLIS -- You could have forgiven Indiana for a letdown.

Consider the week the Hoosiers just finished. This past Saturday, they completed the most important upset of coach Tom Crean's tenure at the school, a thrilling, emotional, insert-your-adjective-here, last-second buzzer-beating one-point win over rival Kentucky.

In Bloomington, the party started the second Christian Watford hit the game-winning shot. It began on Branch McCracken Court and moved to the bars and poured out into the streets of downtown, an entire fan base chanting and cheering and holding onto its first legitimate realization that the Hoosiers were once again -- finally, mercifully -- relevant.

The party ended sometime Sunday, and that's when reality hit. Finals week.

Indiana's students, the ones in all those joyous postgame celebration videos, had to sober up in time to make sure they could still get by when their professors handed them those all-important Scantron sheets.

It was no different for IU's players, who had one night to savor the biggest win of their (mostly) young careers before finishing their schoolwork for the semester. Of course, those final exams had to be balanced with practice and film study. Many of the Hoosiers, according to Crean, had to miss portions of practice throughout the week in order to take their tests.

So when IU came out flat against Notre Dame during this Saturday's Crossroads Classic -- trailing 15-6 after a barrage of Irish 3-pointers -- the inevitable murmurs began: Following a week like this, maybe Indiana was due for a letdown.

Distractions. Overconfidence. Inexperience. Any combination of the three could have produced a disappointing effort.

That impulse didn't last long. The Hoosiers quickly forgot their (ahem) forgettable first eight minutes, tightening their defense, forcing Notre Dame into 14 consecutive misses from the field and steadily cruising -- thanks in large part to the dominant post work of freshman Cody Zeller (21 points, 8 rebounds, 2 blocks) -- to a businesslike 69-58 victory.

"We hadn't experienced getting a win like this yet this season," Crean said. "It's one, probably, in the past we may not have been able to get. It was a very physical game, and our team did a great job of responding to that."

The win moved Indiana to 10-0 on the season, making the Hoosiers the last undefeated team in the Big Ten (following Illinois' loss to UNLV in Chicago). Barring a shocking upset to either Howard or UMBC at home in the coming week, IU will enter its first Big Ten game -- a Dec. 28 trip to Michigan State -- flying high at 12-0.

That mark would match Indiana's win total from the 2010-11 season, which is still the highest in Crean's three-year career at the school. This is a new world for this group of players. The challenge of proving themselves is past these Hoosiers. The new challenge, at least for the moment, is maintaining their focus in the face of newfound success.

Crean was thrilled with his team's practice habits throughout the week, calling IU's first post-Kentucky practice Monday "excellent." He gave his players Sunday off but demanded them back in the gym in the next two days.

"And then Wednesday became a film day," Crean said. "And I think they got a real eye-opener when they looked at the film, to see the numerous opportunities we had in the game. Certainly we wanted to reflect and be proud and excited and reflect on the game, but there were numerous opportunities we had where we could have played better inside the game, especially in the second half.

"I think they understood that. That's the sign of a team that's maturing. An immature team wouldn't have wanted to hear that. But they did. And they responded."

Indiana hardly unleashed a vintage performance Saturday. Then again, it didn't need to. Notre Dame is 7-5 this season and ranked No. 83 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings thanks to a host of expected and unexpected personnel turnover.

Ben Hansbrough, the 2011 Big East Player of the Year, graduated in the spring. Meanwhile, top returning forward Carlton Scott made a surprising and ultimately ill-advised decision to enter the NBA draft (Scott went undrafted). Then on Nov. 22, leading scorer Tim Abromaitis tore his ACL, ending his season and career and leaving Mike Brey's team with a patchwork lineup that looks almost nothing like the 2010-11 team that went 27-7 and 14-4 in the rough-and-tumble Big East.

The Irish's inability to find consistent scoring has left Brey hoping new little-used pieces such as guard Alex Dragicevich -- whose three 3s gave ND its early lead -- can bring something on the offensive end. But Notre Dame has struggled defensively, too, allowing opponents nearly a point per possession in its 12 games thus far.

In other words, it's not like the Hoosiers took down a vaunted opponent here at Conseco Fieldhouse. Still, the win was impressive in its workmanlike nature.

"It's a great example of a group that has been together, they've been kicked around," Brey said. "Tom has done a great job leading them through the tough times. They've been toughened by it; they stayed together through it. It's really what college basketball is all about. It's that cycle of college sports. You have one of those [periods], and you can grow up out of it and be really good.

"They're very confident right now. And rightfully so."

Indiana guard Jordan Hulls said that confidence is derived in large part from the play of Zeller, the wunderkind freshman who rose to No. 12 on Chad Ford's 2012 NBA draft board last week. Zeller has given IU an easy way to score -- pass it to Cody, let him go to work -- while forcing defenses to choose whether to help on the low block or stay close to any number of the Hoosiers' efficient perimeter threats.

"We've got to play through Cody all the time," Hulls said. "He can just do so many things."

Thanks to Zeller's versatility and the ongoing improvement of players such as Hulls, Watford and guards Victor Oladipo and Will Sheehey, the Hoosiers appear more self-assured than at any point in recent history. For the first time in Crean's tenure -- and any of these players' careers -- Indiana is actually expected to win. Ten wins, then 12, then beyond: Each accomplishment will be territory untrod. Each new challenge will be fresh.

As the wins pile up and the accolades accrue, can the Hoosiers stay focused? They certainly looked that way Saturday. And so now, Crean says, is the time to start asking even bigger questions of his team.

"The more you're successful, the more you win, the more answers you'll be asked to give," Crean said. "The bottom line is, our job [as coaches] is to create a lot of questions. Their job is to have questions, to have -- not to question themselves or to question things, but have the question be 'How do I get better? How do I improve here? How do we improve there?' And that's our focus.

"Our practices, there were some knock-down drag-outs to them, there was some refinement to them, but all week long, there was energy. And if the day comes that there's not energy, we'll start over later that night."