by Kent Sterling
This was an ugly if ultimately rewarding game for Indiana as they began the second six-game stretch of the Big Ten season. For Illinois, it was ugly and not rewarding, and signaled tap city, as Al McGuire used to say.
The Hoosiers outscored the Illini 13-5 from the foul line, out rebounded them 42-28, and hit 40.8% compared to Illinois’ 33.3 repeating.
So now Indiana is 3-4 in Big Ten play, only one game out of a tie for fourth. Illinois dropped to 2-6, one-half game out of last. The two programs started the day within a half-game of one another. One survived, and one was declared DOA. That’s how wacky the Big Ten is in 2014.
Michigan remains undefeated at 7-0 and Michigan State is 7-1. Iowa is alone in third at 5-2. The rest is a total mess.
We don’t know much more about Indiana today than we did three weeks ago or four hours ago, and I like feeling like I know something. This might be the most frustrating Indiana team in memory if only because it’s impossible to figure out a single component of it, or see a way that these pieces fit as one.
Is the coaching good or bad? Who can tell? Is Noah Vonleh a great player being taken away be defenses, or a player who hasn’t figured out how to be productively assertive yet? Is Troy Williams full of untapped potential, or a guy like Ricky Calloway or Charlie Miller who will be remembered in Bloomington for what might have been more than for what was?
The defense can be very good, while the offense appears muddled and out of synch much of the time. If the Hoosiers are unable to score in transition, putting the ball in the bucket gets tough. Illinois collapsed four defenders on Noah Vonleh every time he caught the ball on the block today, and he managed only four points on six shots. The Hoosiers won, so fans will overlook much of the ugly underbelly of this one.
There are almost constant corrections about positioning, and coach Tom Crean could be clearly heard admonishing Vonleh for setting up on the wrong side of the floor late in today’s game.
I don’t know what to make of this group, and I’m afraid the future will be filled with some fans pining for what could have been, while the others are glad what might have happened didn’t. Instead of bar room arguments, there might be a lot of shrugged shoulders.
That’s the fate for many teams that lose 70% of their points from one season to the next, as well as the entire board of directors. The Hoosiers lost more leadership than offense after last season with the graduation or abdication of Jordan Hulls, Christian Watford, Maurice Creek, Derek Elston, Victor Oladipo, and Cody Zeller.
Fans asked who the heir apparent to the leadership mantle might be, but that question is still unanswered. When Indiana players gather on the floor, several speak simultaneously, and you know what they say, “If everyone’s talking, no one’s listening.”
The upcoming five games might see the Hoosiers gel a little bit, but the road is damn tough. Thursday night, Indiana travels to Nebraska, then Michigan visits Assembly Hall on Super Bowl Sunday. After that, Indiana visits Minnesota, hosts Penn State, and then plays the Boilermakers of Purdue at Mackey Arena.
If Indiana wins three of those games, their Big Ten record will be even at 6-6.
After that, four of the final six opponents are ranked in the top 21, and Michigan – the #21 team in America – will climb after beating the Spartans last night.
In two months, it will all be over, and the talk will evolve into what effect James Blackmon Jr., Robert Johnson, and Max Hoetzel might have on the roster. Will the departures of Will Sheehey, Jeff Howard, Evan Gordon, and Taylor Wayer cause problems? Will Vonleh’s stock rise high enough to prompt him to be Indiana’s first one-and-done since Evan’s brother Eric in 2008? And if so, will Hanner Mosquera-Perea be ready to play more than the one minute he logged today?
So many questions. So few answers. That’s Hoosier basketball in 2014.