During this week last year a buoyant enthusiasm for Indiana basketball was beginning to resurface in Bloomington. The Hoosiers were preparing to take on the top-ranked Kentucky Wildcats – a myriad of intimidating, professional talent and the opposite of what IU’s rebuilding process represented.
The Hoosiers were 9-0 — finally securing a few marquee wins over Butler and N.C. State to give that record some actual weight – and had fans clamoring for the hottest ticket in town.
The excitement was palpable. It had not been since the lone Eric Gordon year in 2008 – and even this is debatable – that Hoosiers anywhere had something to write home about. A select group of fans, infamously known as “Camp Crean,” answered the pleas from legendary IU broadcaster Don Fischer — who had criticized the Hoosier faithful for a lack of fan support — went as far as to camp out outside of Assembly Hall in preparation for Saturday’s game.
That moment alone had dwarfed any excitement out of IU basketball during the three-year Tom Crean era.
“Camp Crean” was the first of a string of incredible events to truly inculcate the truth in the soon-to-be popularized saying “Indiana basketball is back,” which, until this seasons pre-season rankings were unveiled, was debated ad nauseum.
Those pre-season rankings had Indiana ranked No. 1 due to the season that followed its improbable, culture changing 73-72 victory over Kentucky that day.
That win over Kentucky began to pay immediate dividends in ways that still cannot be accounted for. It was not just the programs first leap back into the top-25 in over three years. And it was not just the ebullient aura that once again began to surround Assembly Hall.
It is the aplomb personality the Hoosiers and their fans alike discovered and eventually turned the saying “Indiana basketball is back” into an attitude.
Sadly, Indiana and Kentucky may not rekindle their recently established annual circle on the calendar, but Kentucky still has everything to do with why this season is different from last. Kentucky let that invaluable “it” factor creep into IU’s culture, and knowing the culture buff that Tom Crean is, he immediately took advantage and has not let anybody in the program surrender it.
Take away that win over Kentucky and the Hoosiers still put a stamp of legitimacy on last season. But you don’t hear Dick Vitale clamoring about stout tournament wins over New Mexico State and VCU. That win didn’t make their season, it made their season.
There is a certain degree of posturing behind Indiana basketball today. It is the type of laudable bravado and swagger that could not be identified on this very day last year.
That’s what one big win can do for a program. And now that program is expected to produce many more of them. Every time IU takes the floor it is expected to produce at the level that comes with that shiny new No. 1 next to its name, Sports Illustrated covers and days of Tom Crean running the ESPN interview gauntlet. It’s a blessing, a curse and the difference between last year and this year.
This year the Hoosiers challenge is to find their identity as the No. 1 team in the country. The top dog. The hunted. Whatever you want to call it. These Hoosiers aren’t sneaking up on anybody this year, especially in the Big Ten where they were able to polish the ink on that stamp of legitimacy last year.
How the Hoosiers handle it is the question that remains to be seen. To this point they have performed admirably. They’re 8-0 and have no letdowns or blemishes to note. Any criticism to this point is simply nitpicking to an unnecessary degree. They were tested by an underrated Georgetown team in Brooklyn and handled North Carolina at home. Both are tournament caliber teams and both were on a national stage.
This year there is no Kentucky game circled on the schedule. IU will coast until it meets Butler at the Crossroads Classic in Indianapolis on December 15th. A game they are expected to win and will provide the only true test for about a month when Big Ten play commences.
Last year the Hoosiers were able to carry their momentum from December wins over Kentucky and Notre Dame into a front-loaded Big Ten schedule that included games with highly ranked Michigan State and Ohio State. An admirable fight on the road in East Lansing and a victory over then No. 2 Ohio State let the Hoosiers know that their win over Kentucky was not a fluke. For the first time in three years, they were able to contend.
This year they are more than able, they are expected. Not just to contend, but to win the Big Ten and National Championship. That comes with an onerous degree of pressure that has not yet inundated itself in the Hoosier locker room. And due to this years back-loaded Big Ten schedule, it might not for some time to come.
Last year bad losses to Minnesota, Nebraska and Iowa could be justified around the many bars of Bloomington.
From “We’re still too young” at Kilroys to “Verdell Jones is still starting” at Nick’s, Hoosier fans had a lengthy catalog of defenses ready to churn out at a moment’s notice.
“IU lost to Wisconsin again? Uhm, turn to page six. Tom Pritchard played too much! We’re fine!”
None of that is going to fly this go-round. You can’t win a championship without getting hit. Champions get hit, but they keep fighting. Those few letdown games aside last year, IU found some silver-lining and proved they were able to respond to a little “adversity.”
This year is about proving they are focused on the long haul. The Big Ten schedule is long and brutal. A letdown game or two is no cause for concern. But can Cody Zeller start putting his stamp on games early? Does Christian Watford need new batteries? Can the Hoosiers finally make a legitimate run in the Big Ten tournament?
These are good problems to have and merely minor nuances to keep an eye on as the season progresses. It’s only going to get tougher from here. How the Hoosier players and fanbase react is going to determine how this season plays out.
There’s no Kentucky circled on the schedule, just three big games in April.