Thursday, March 24, 2016

Resilient Indiana soldiers on into Sweet 16

Tom Crean and Indiana had watershed moment in December loss to Duke, one that continues to fuel Hoosiers even as they face North Carolina in Sweet 16. (Photo courtesy of the Washington Post)

PHILADELPHIA -- Much like their Big Ten brethren Wisconsin, Indiana had a revelatory moment early in the season to vault them to greater heights as the year went on.

For the Badgers, it was a loss to Northwestern that left them 9-9 just weeks after head coach Bo Ryan announced his retirement and ceded the program to Greg Gard. For the Hoosiers, it was a 20-point loss to Duke on December 2 that continues to stoke the flames both in and away from Bloomington.

"I don't know if there's been any team that's been held more accountable to what they did from December 2 before than this team," said head coach Tom Crean as Indiana (27-7) prepares for the oncoming challenge of North Carolina, (30-6) the top seed in the East Regional, in Friday night's regional semifinal. "We've had to live with a lot of that back home, but the good thing for these guys is they don't let it affect them. All they did was get better."

Since the 94-74 rout inside Cameron Indoor Stadium, the Hoosiers have won 22 of their last 26 games, feeding off the point guard play of senior Yogi Ferrell and interior presence of freshman forward Thomas Bryant; an All-Big Ten selection in his own right, coupled with the scoring talent of Troy Williams on the wing as Indiana continues to fight on in March despite the absence of James Blackmon due to a season-ending knee injury suffered in January. And as Crean revealed in Thursday's pregame press conference, it all comes back to the adversity they faced in Durham, even if the coach admitted his team may not have learned all that much from the outcome right away.

"What we learned from that game was we need to be more aggressive," said Crean. "What we learned about ourselves is that we control that aggressiveness. We control our ability to not only be connected defensively, which we've really become, but to really get out and run."

"As poor as our defense was early on in the year, our running game was equally as bad," Crean discerned. "We weren't getting out and playing fast enough. And really, pre-Morehead State, which was December 5, the one game that we really did it right was in the Creighton game (November 19). We played really well that night against a team at home, and then we didn't move the ball as well and we weren't as connected defensively."

Wins in 14 of their next 15 games following the loss to Duke played a major role in Indiana turning the corner, but so too did player development, which is still being heralded as perhaps the most integral factor in the courageous nature of the cream and crimson heading into the NCAA Tournament's second weekend.

"The fact of the matter is, the guys continue to get better at Indiana," said Crean; "and they don't just get better through practice, through schemes and Xs and Os, they get better fundamentally. It doesn't matter if you're Yogi Ferrell, who is a McDonald's All-American, or some of our freshmen like OG (Anunoby) or Juwan, (Morgan) that were mildly recruited. You get better, and eventually, you really learn that you are responsible to impact your teammates; not only in the offensive end, but the defensive end. I think that's been the biggest thing for us."

"They're absolutely resilient," Crean said of his players. "They learn from their mistakes, they build on their successes, and there's never been a time where I walked into practice or walked out of practice thinking that we had some guys that were full of themselves. We've not had that at all, and I think that's got a lot to do with why we're here today."

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