BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) Coach Tom Crean got right to the point after Indiana’s latest loss.
The defense must be more consistent, the shooting must improve and his players must become better leaders over the next month if the Hoosiers are to have any chance of earning an NCAA Tournament bid.
So after 26 games and the same old problems, there are real questions about what, if anything, can be fixed in time to make a late-season push.
“I’m not shirking responsibility one iota, it falls on me. One thing I’ve learned in nine years, it all falls on me,” Crean told reporters Sunday. “The bottom line is we’ve got to do something to get communication up and when the shots aren’t going is when the communication has got to be even higher. It’s very easy to be locked in and connected to one another when the shots are going, but when they aren’t going is when real leadership’s got to emerge.”
Those are not words Indiana fans expected to be hearing this season. The defending Big Ten champs were considered a preseason conference favorite and solidified that claim with November upsets of No. 3 Kansas and No. 3 North Carolina.
Since then, things have unraveled:
– They have lost five straight to ranked opponents and three in a row overall .
– They have lost four times at Assembly Hall this season, starting with Nebraska’s victory Dec. 28 that ended Indiana’s 26-game home winning streak.
– At 5-8 in league play, they are closer to last place than first.
– And with only one home game left finishing below .500 in the conference is now a real possibility.
Angry fans are blaming Crean. Some, again, want the coach fired. Others are again counting down the days till July 1, when Crean’s contract buyout drops from $4 million to $1 million. And after Sunday, some contended Crean was more critical of his players than himself.
“Immaturity in the back court,” Crean said when asked about Indiana’s season-long turnover problems. “We don’t play both ends of the floor with the same purpose that we have to play when our shots aren’t going. And we’ve had injuries in there, too. But that’s got to change.”
Indiana (15-11) lost starting forward and longtime leader Collin Hartman with a season-ending knee injury in September. OG Anunoby, the Hoosiers’ top defender, went down with a season-ending knee injury in January. Leading scorer James Blackmon Jr. hasn’t been the same either since returning from a lower left leg injury on Thursday. He’s averaged 8.5 points in the two games he’s played since returning from a three-game game absence, almost half his normal scoring.
While Crean refuses to use injuries as an excuse, the sudden struggle has forced the Hoosiers to question how they play.
“I just think a lot of it is not being prepared to shoot before you get the ball,” guard Robert Johnson said after scoring five points in Sunday’s 75-63 loss to Michigan. “A lot of it is not hitting guys on time and on target with passes, and I think it just comes from confidence.”
Why would a team that went into Sunday averaging 81.3 points this season and a league best 78.2 since 2011-12 suddenly lose confidence in its ability to shoot?
Crean intimated that his players may be feeling too much pressure to play up to the expectations.
But they also lack an experienced leader, and it shows.
For four seasons, point guard Kevin “Yogi” Ferrell provided the expertise and intangibles needed to make the Indiana offense run. This season, with all of the injuries, the Hoosiers have struggled to find someone who can consistently take charge on the floor.
“It’s a 19-year-old guy trying to find his own game and trying to lead a group of guys that he really should be getting a little more help,” Crean said, referring to sophomore center Thomas Bryant who has battled foul trouble in each of the last two games. “I’ve got to give him more help, obviously.”
If the Hoosiers want to make any kind of postseason run, so do his teammates.
“It all falls on the upperclassmen, me, James, guys that have been here,” Johnson said. “We have to come with a consistent level of effort, communication. Those are things that we always have to have within the game, and I think we’ll be good to go if we do those.”