Perhaps it was all premature.
All of the early praise heaped upon the Hoosiers -- by people like me -- seemed so right, so deserved.
Tom Crean took over a program in shambles. Forget the legacy. The 2008-09 Hoosiers squad that Crean coached in his first season couldn’t speak of it. The chasm between that squad and the program’s Great Ones was as wide as Cody Zeller’s wingspan.
Three years later, however, Crean had done it. Did what few expected. Did what didn’t seem feasible at times. He helped Indiana achieve national prominence again with incomprehensible victories over No. 1 Kentucky and No. 2 Ohio State.
National coach of the year? Give Crean the award now. Cody Zeller? The NBA won’t wait another year. NCAA tournament? Try Final Four.
Like a trip to Cold Stone Creamery, many of us asked for extra scoops of whatever they were serving in Bloomington.
But then things got real. And a team that depends on the 3-ball started to miss. A squad that looked enchanted at Assembly Hall began to play subpar basketball on the road.
IU’s 70-69 loss at Nebraska on Wednesday -- its third in a row, fourth in Big Ten play -- might mean it’s time to call a timeout on the Indiana Turnaround.
No, don’t hit the panic button. We're not there yet. But every question about this program’s immediate future is a reasonable one.
A lot of top-25 teams would lose in East Lansing and Columbus. But the Hoosiers weren’t really competitive in their road losses to Michigan State and Ohio State. And losses to Minnesota at home and Nebraska on the road? And that Sunday-afternoon survival at Penn State? This just doesn’t look like the same team that beat the Wildcats and Buckeyes.
A few things you should know. Last year, I traveled throughout the state of Indiana for a feature on Crean. That fan base stood behind Indiana basketball in its worst days. This is still a great story of resurgence, and all is not lost.
This is not the end for the Hoosiers. Too many pieces. Too much potential. Too much time to fix it.
But here’s my current observation: I don’t believe Indiana knows how to win consistently yet.
This is a squad that finished the 2010-11 season with a 3-15 record in the Big Ten, 12-20 overall. The Hoosiers came close to victory multiple times (10 losses by single digits), but they couldn’t finish, especially on the road.
Winning is still new for this squad. Winning in conference play is foreign. And winning on the road is not even a phrase worth mentioning. The Hoosiers are 2-29 on the road under Crean. Two wins. Out of 31 tries.
Look, there’s a certain attitude that perennial winners possess. And the Hoosiers don’t have that yet.
I’m not making excuses for the 13-point lead they blew against the Huskers. Or their timid effort against the Gophers last week. But these guys are learning about winning on the fly -- like a young pitcher who hit 100 mph on the radar gun two weeks ago but is still struggling to find the strike zone.
Against the Huskers, Indiana committed 14 turnovers on the night and connected on exactly one field goal in the final six minutes.
At Ohio State, the Hoosiers were outscored 35-14 in the first half. The Gophers recorded a 16-12 edge on the offensive glass against the Hoosiers. At Michigan State, Indiana was doomed by a 20-0 Spartans run.
You can’t take away IU’s victories over Kentucky and Ohio State. Impressive. Doesn't matter where they were played. And with all of their challenges last season, the Hoosiers’ nonconference victories at NC State and against Notre Dame in Indianapolis were commendable, too.
But the Big Ten is a gauntlet that Crean’s Hoosiers have never conquered. League play is all about familiarity, consistency and the ability to compete for 40 minutes.
The Hoosiers have been teetering on the line between success and failure since the Big Ten season began. Against Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State, the Hoosiers held on. They looked like a team that was still feasting on confidence gleaned from their nonconference victories. They had spunk.
With each conference loss during this three-game slide, however, they’ve lost a bit of their mojo. To win in the Big Ten, they’ll have to fight every night. I don’t think Crean has to teach effort. But the Hoosiers can’t get up for big games alone.
Champs come ready for Ohio State and Nebraska. They’re just addicted to victory.
And as hungry as I believe the Hoosiers are right now, they’re still a work in progress.
I’m not going to assume that the worst is yet to come for Indiana. I don’t anticipate a massive collapse down the stretch.
If a team can beat Kentucky and Ohio State, it can beat any squad.
But the full extent of Indiana’s turnaround won’t be decided by nonconference wins. The Hoosiers’ finish in the Big Ten and the postseason will determine that.
To succeed in both, they’ll have to get tougher. It's as simple as that.