Hoosiers find their way, but is it too late?

CHICAGO -- Sometimes a college basketball team finds itself just in time. Sometimes the self-discovery comes with no reward.

The Indiana Hoosiers (20-13) left United Center hoping what they started here can continue next week in the NCAA tournament. The Hoosiers played with the urgency of a tournament team, delivering their best defensive effort of the season Thursday against Northwestern and then pacing the No. 8 Maryland Terrapins (27-5) for 38 minutes Friday before the shots stopped falling in a 75-69 loss.

A young team grew up and toughened up, crashing the boards for 18 offensive rebounds and pestering Maryland ball handlers, tallying seven steals and six blocks. The Big Ten's top 3-point-shooting team struggled from the perimeter but, unlike other games, didn't fall apart thanks to contributions in other areas.

"They were re-energized," coach Tom Crean said. "We were home and really looked at what we were not taking care of. It wasn't about, 'Let's follow the Bubble Watch, let's read about how bad we're playing.' Let's focus in on what we can fix, and the bottom line was rebounding. We had to get better at defensive rebounding the ball.

"We had to clean up some points off turnovers, and we certainly had to do a better job of getting to the foul line."

Indiana had dropped four of its final five regular-season games because it let poor shooting impact everything else. The Hoosiers showed greater mettle in two tournament games, as Troy Williams delivered two big performances and freshman forward Emmitt Holt (12 rebounds, six points, three blocks against Maryland) blossomed as Indiana played without starter Hanner Mosquera-Perea (right knee).

After a typical offensive first half -- 40 points, 48.4 percent shooting, 4-of-8 on 3-pointers -- Indiana missed six of its first seven shots in the second half. The shooting didn't improve much as the half went on, but the grittiness of Williams and Holt -- grabbing offensive rebounds, forcing turnovers, getting to the foul line -- kept the deficit manageable.

"I was just frustrated that we didn't get the win because I know we all gave it our all," Holt said. "When you lose games where you give everything, it's tough."

The Hoosiers' renaissance in the past 30 hours won't make the next 30 any easier. If they see their name called Sunday, they can build off of what they started here. If they don't, they'll wonder what might have been.

"I like the way we fought for both games, moving the ball, playing great defense, rebounding for our team," guard Yogi Ferrell said. "Hopefully, we've done enough to make the tournament. If not, then so be it. But if we do, we feel like that we can play the same way going into these next games."

What if Indiana had played like this all season?

"Things would definitely be different," junior guard Nick Zeisloft said. "We wouldn't be in this situation right now. That's part of us growing together and learning together. You can't let up on any possession, on any stretch of the season, at all."

Added freshman guard Robert Johnson: "That's just part of getting better."

Crean was adamant his team walked out of United Center better, especially on defense. Then again, Indiana is talented enough, despite its youth, not to be sweating out Selection Sunday.

The Hoosiers have flashed their potential in spurts, such as a four-game win streak in January that featured two wins against ranked opponents. But they followed with inconsistent results and then bad ones before flipping the switch in the league tournament.

Crean, whose team missed the tournament last year following consecutive Sweet 16 appearances, admitted he hasn't been in this position before. There's no definitive plan for the team Sunday, as there's no definitive destination.

"It's not all the way there yet," said Crean, who earlier this month received a vote of confidence from athletic director Fred Glass. "But they have started to learn how to hold each other accountable, and they will get on one another to be better, and I saw some of that the last couple days again, too.

"I love coaching them, and I'm looking forward to continuing it next week."

The only question is whether he will do so in the NCAA tournament or the NIT.