BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — There were supposed to be so many things wrong with the Indiana Hoosiers.
The messy preseason. Complete with enough off-court transgressions to get the state looking at the Hoosiers as if they were Tom Brady and Bill Belichick with a bag of soft footballs.
Ugly losses. The inexplicable home court defeat by Eastern Washington, and 20-point thrashings by Louisville and Michigan State.
One big injury. Hanner Mosquera-Perea went out with a knee problem, which made a post-poor roster that much poorer. Destitute, in fact.
The bad taste of last year’s swoon, when the Hoosiers dropped seven of their last 10 games, finished 17-15, and didn’t even dally with the NIT.
That’s a mouthful of trouble.
So how to explain the current 15-4 record? How to explain four wins against top-25 opponents? How to explain Thursday night, when Indiana mashed Big Ten co-leader Maryland 89-70 — the 14th time this defense-happy season that the Hoosiers have broken 80? How to explain Tom Crean taken off the endangered coaching list, with Assembly Hall in full and adoring roar Thursday night?
“We just stayed together,” sophomore forward Troy Williams said. “Through everything. … We didn’t let none of the outside get to us.’’
A recent shooting spree hasn’t hurt, either. Maryland owned the finest defensive field goal percentage in the conference, and the Hoosiers shredded it, shooting 60 percent from the field, including 15-for-22 from behind the 3-point line. Indiana has buried 35 3-pointers on 68 attempts in the past three games. Gulp.
“We have had adversity all year that we have had to respond to,” Crean said. “Well, [now] they’re responding to the adversity of the game.”
This is Indiana. Two freshmen on the wings, a 6-foot point guard, and now a 6-6 sophomore in the post who is only 10 months removed from an ACL tear and scored all of 11 points his freshman season. That’s four fewer than he just did against Maryland.
So when Mosquera-Perea went down, did Collin Hartman really expect to start?
“Very quickly,” he answered, “No, I didn’t.”
But now he is, and his ability to move outside and either shoot or penetrate is a matchup issue for the other team’s posts and has made Indiana a five-out lineup that is a handful to defend. The Hoosiers might be smallish trying to stop opponents, but as guard Yogi Ferrell noted, “They got to guard us, too.”
So there Hartman was against Maryland, hitting all four shots he took — three of them 3-pointers — and even blocking three shots, as if he were big enough to be playing down the road at Kentucky. “[Collin] Hartman’s mom might know the last time he had three blocked shots,” Crean said, “but I’ve never seen it.”
And there Ferrell was, going 7-for-8 in 3-pointers for 24 points. And there freshman James Blackmon Jr. was, adding 22 more, passing the 20-point mark for the seventh time this season.
And there Indiana was, stretching the Terrapins defense with five different Hoosiers hitting 3-pointers. Blowing away a new face in the league that came in 17-2 and had been making noise about contending for the title. “Great for us mentally and great for us physically,” Williams said of the evening.
— Tom Crean
The players talk of sticking together through the hard times.
Crean talks of the work ethic they have shown. He gave a short homily on the dedication of Ferrell, who on this night was making shots from the next zip code.
“We get back on Sunday [from winning at Illinois], working late, and I hear the balls bouncing late Sunday night. There’s Yogi out shooting.
“Monday morning, there he is. We don’t practice. Monday afternoon or evening, there he is. Wednesday, he shot after practice. I hear again he’s back in here late last night. That’s a hunger level. That’s leadership.
“Now we got to keep that attitude. We keep that kind of attitude, we keep that kind of desire, then we’re going to keep improving. That’s the key. I told them, I’m not budging, and they shouldn’t budge, either.”
These Hoosiers might have been glued together by all the outside criticism they took in the fall, as the off-court embarrassments mounted. “We had to help them grow up,” Crean said. “And we’re still in the midst of that.”
You put unity with some talent, and then spread them out on offense, and turn them loose with the intent to run and score, then you get nights like 89-70. You get Ferrell peppering Maryland with 3-pointers and later saying how wide the rim looked. “I was just letting it go, and then it was all up to the ball from there.”
This in a year where Kentucky and Virginia and Louisville are trying to thrive by holding teams to 50. But not Indiana. “Are we trying to go against the grain?” Crean said. “We’re trying to play even faster.”
The road stretches ahead, with possible other uncertainties. The defense gave up 94 to Louisville, 91 to Georgetown and 88 to Eastern Washington. But Thursday suggested how far the Hoosiers have traveled, how much they have grown, and how dangerous they have become.
“They knew it was a big deal,” Crean said of the Maryland game, “and they wanted to see where they stood.”
At the moment, Indiana is standing in a pretty good place — although it wasn’t supposed to be.