by Kent Sterling
The best part of participating in sports as a part of a college education is the almost relentless confrontations with adversity that present themselves. Fight or flight is a choice college athletes make everyday – sometimes more than once each day.
Should they stay at their original school? Should they continue to practice with focus? Should they continue to do the extra work needed to improve more quickly than opponents – or teammates? Should they trust the coach who sometimes sounds like a nut? Should they drag their tired asses to class after a late game the night before? Should they be careful about the stuff they put in their bodies?
The questions that require mature answers separate success from failure, and they are never-ending. For basketball players at Indiana, the results of those choices play out in front of 17,472 at Assembly Hall and a national TV audience of alums and fans.
Indiana has had a tough season so far. No one is thrilled with a 4-8 Big Ten record, and the easy pre-conference schedule has more to do with the 14-11 overall mark than any semblance of excellence in November or December.
There is a choice facing the Hoosiers today as they prepare to play #15 Iowa at 9p tonight at Assembly Hall. Should they compete for the final six games, or bail on the season, each other, and the coaching staff?
No doubt the Hoosiers believed they would never find themselves at this precipice of doom when the season began. I remember thinking when listening to players and coaches at Media Day, “Boy, this team sure thinks highly of itself. I hope they’re right.” Each spoke passionately about the effect the new length and athleticism would have on their ability to compete at a high level, and the predictions were, let’s just say, aggressively vague.
That confidence didn’t quite reach a level of arrogance and was definitely short of hubris, but it was hard to buy into thinking that despite losing 70% of their scoring and rebounding, and virtually all of its leadership, Indiana was actually going to be as good or better than they were in 2013.
To this point, Indiana has not shown itself worthy of the talk dispensed on that October day, but there is still time – lots of time to show something more than the losses to Penn State, Illinois, Northwestern, and Nebraska – lot’s of time to show that wins over Wisconsin and Michigan weren’t flukes.
What success requires at this point is a toughness, a collective will, and a passion for what they are doing that can change the dynamic. But do they have the intestinal fortitude to respond to a tough session of looking in the mirror to decide that the examination and corrective measure is worth the result?
There are moments for every athlete where adversity provides a test of character, and the first failure is usually not the last.
The difficulty lies in the fact that in the middle of February, the tonnage of hard work wears raw the soul of a weak competitor. Games now are a test of endurance, not skill. All those practices, games, travel, and sacrifice – are they worth it?
Indiana forward Hanner Mosquiera-Perea answered that question last Thursday night when he got behind the wheel of a car with a blood alcohol content of greater than .15 (the measurement at the time of his booking), and he was likely not the only one. He just had the misfortune – or stupidity – necessary to be the only one caught.
So tonight is one of seven tests remaining for a group of kids who have underachieved. Tom Crean can’t make them care. The Crimson Guard can’t make them care. Only an internal burning can bring to a rage the competitive fire needed to reverse course.
Indiana has lost five-of-seven because of their poor level of play, and if the players find the steel needed to overcome themselves as obstacles, they will have learned the kind of life lesson that makes playing a sport while performing as a full-time student very worthwhile.
Mailing it in from tonight through the end of the season only cheats themselves of the chance to grow as players and men.