BLOOMINGTON -- Jeremiah Rivers' voice didn't waver, his eyes didn't look away. Vows work only when you believe, when you're committed, when you care.
“I'll be in the gym 24/7,” Rivers said. “That's not going to happen again. I can't let it happen again. The team will rely on me to make big free throws.”
The Indiana guard has no problem facing the heat from his imperfections entering tonight's game against Bryant. It's a lesson likely learned from his father, Doc Rivers, the Boston Celtics coach and former NBA player who has made a career out of facing public heat.
You don't duck it. You meet it and, hopefully, beat it.
The heat arrived for the younger Rivers after his 3-for-9 free-throw shooting in IU's 72-67 loss to Loyola of Maryland. He had done so much to carry the Hoosiers from a 24-point deficit to the cusp of victory - a career-high 15 points, five rebounds, four assists and three steals. That is what you expect from your most experienced player.
But four missed crunch-time free throws, two fouls that produced four-point Loyola plays and a huge turnover is not what you can afford from your most experienced player.
“I didn't want to let my team down,” Rivers said. “That was the last thing I wanted to do. We had fought so hard. It's really tough for me, but I won't hold my head down about it.”
Head hanging isn't the problem. Making free throws is.
Bill Parcels once famously said you are what your record says you are. Here is Rivers' free-throw shooting record this season: 26 for 49, 53.1 percent. In two years at Georgetown, he was 23 for 44, 52.3 percent.
Rivers' vow to work more on free throws comes with this warning - he has spent months working on it. It's likely not a matter of effort, but of ability. Some guys are great free-throw shooters. Some are not. Some guys can sing. Some can't.
In so many ways, Rivers is exactly the guy coach Tom Crean wants with the ball in his hands at the end of games. He can drive, get to the rim, pass and make plays. He cares. He leads. As Crean said, without Rivers, IU doesn't make a comeback against Loyola.
“Would we have liked to have him make his free throws?” Crean said. “Absolutely. All we can do is keep working on it. His attitude and the way he attacks when he's in full-mode attack, he is pretty hard to stop.”
But if Rivers can't make free throws, he's a crunch-time liability. He knows it. Crean knows it. The Cream and Crimson world knows it. So he will increase the practice load, and maybe it pays off with Steve Alford-like accuracy.
“It will come,” Rivers said. “I'm not worried about it. I've got to make free throws. That's the bottom line. (Loyola) happened and I move on to the next game. It's all I can do.”
Moving on resumes when IU (5-6) hosts Bryant (0-12) in its final non-conference game. Bryant is in its second year at the NCAA Division I level, going 8-33 in that span. It is in a stretch where it will be on the road for 10 of 11 games.
The Hoosiers came back from a Christmas break focused on conditioning, and themselves, rather than Bryant.
“Practice has been very intense,” guard Verdell Jones said. “We've focused on defense and rebounding.”
Rivers saw a Hoosier silver lining from the strong second-half comeback against Loyola and the solid first-half performance against Kentucky.
“We're right there,” he said. “It's little plays and lapses that are killing us. We're young and inexperienced. We've still got to learn. We just have to learn faster. There has to be more urgency so we come back even stronger.”
Added Crean: “We've got some things to really build on.”