Yogi Ferrell could feel the connection with his teammates in some games last season. In others, he could not.
It was all part of the ebb and flow of a disappointing season, one that Indiana basketball has aimed to move far beyond in the months since it all ended with a forgettable 17-15 record and no postseason tournament invitations to speak of.
Indiana is moving on and, in doing so, it is finding the team chemistry that it lacked at times a year ago.
“What was missing last year was that team collectiveness, that connection,” Ferrell said at last week’s Big Ten Media Day in Chicago. “Day in and day out this season, we have to have that connection every game.”
They’re hoping to establish those connections away from Assembly Hall with the team’s living arrangements in Bloomington. The Hoosiers are bunking together this year in dorm-style apartments on campus.
“I think that’s the biggest part is to find time to spend with teammates off the court,” Ferrell said. “That off-the-court connection you make when everything’s relaxed and all the bullets aren’t flying at you, you just get to know everybody.”
The foreign trip to Montreal was a good start.
Beyond the exhibition games and the extra practice time allotted to the program, the Hoosiers were able to spend part of their time in Quebec bonding with one another off the court and away from the locker room. For a team that is 60 percent new, that jumpstart to the process was critical.
“The biggest thing I got out of Canada was just how much of a team we are,” sophomore guard Stan Robinson said. “If one person’s down, the whole team is together. There’s not anybody yelling at each other, there’s not any arguing. Everybody listens to everybody. Like I said, if [freshman walk-on] Nate Richie were to tell [sophomore Troy Williams] something, Troy would listen and take his advice, not take it as, ‘Why is he talking to me?’
“I felt like it was [that way] last year, but sometimes it was the heat of the moment where people just didn’t want to hear it from some people because they were doing bad or things like that. This year, I feel like the team is just up for advice. Everybody wants to learn, everybody wants to be a student of the game. I think that’s what is going to make us better, just the little things.”
Yogi Ferrell’s favorites in Canada were the sites in Montreal, the bus ride from Ottawa and getting better as a team. pic.twitter.com/Ak32e5awQI
— IndianaMBB (@IndianaMBB) August 14, 2014
The little things — like levity and familiarity — weren’t in place last year.
The 2012-13 team produced lottery picks in Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo, but Crean believed the Hoosiers missed a guy like Derek Elston as much as anyone. Elston wasn’t needed for his scoring, or even for his consistent production off the bench. Rather, he was a glue guy in the locker room, and somebody who could keep the mood light and the team’s focus in place.
“He had a role on that team of leadership and energy and likeability that he could crack on anybody,” Crean said. “It was such a big part of the chemistry. We didn’t have that maturity last year, which led to some poor decisions on the court and off, but you build right through it. We are absolutely moving forward.”
Beyond the absence of particular players, there was a missing mindset. Suddenly, the roster was turned over and gone were players that understood what 10-21 and 12-20 felt like.
“I feel like we didn’t understand it as well,” Crean said. “I feel like we had too many guys who hadn’t been through the hard days.”
Make no mistake that the Hoosiers are still quite young — they’re without a senior — and that the early bonding process is ongoing on the court just as it is off the court. But the early returns say that this year’s team has learned from the lessons of last season.
There is optimism and, perhaps most importantly, an understanding of the weight that comes from playing basketball at Indiana.
“It just so happens that the lights are bright on anybody in college basketball or in college sports in general,” Crean said. “But at Indiana, they are brighter. That’s what you sign up for. It takes them a while to understand that that’s what they signed up for.”