BLOOMINGTON — Verdell Jones smiled through the pain, joked about the retaliation. You've got to give as good as you get, better actually, if you're to get this grit, coach Tom Crean demands.
So the Indiana Hoosiers practiced as Crean preached Friday. They scrimmaged without fouls. They crashed the boards with consequences. They did it rough because Illinois will play it rough tonight at Assembly Hall.
“Coach has really stressed that we have to come out and be dogs,” Jones said. “Give the first hit and keep attacking from there.”
What does it mean to be a dog? Consider Jones' sore neck, courtesy of practice blows delivered from teammates Tijan Jobe and Devan Dumes. The Good Book might say to let it go; the Crean Book says no. Jones got his payback.
“You can't retaliate right then and there,” he said. “You have to do sneaky stuff. When Tijan got the ball, I swiped at his face like I was going for the ball. I might knee Devan. It's a lot of fun.”
Fun shifted to rebounding. An assistant coach focused on who crashed the boards on missed shots and who drifted. The crashers kept playing. The drifters did wall sits, which is where a player squats against the wall and holds that position, which is particularly painful on the legs.
“You're basically there forever, until he feels it was good enough,” Jones said. “You get it right away that you need to crash all the time.”
Crean continues to devise creative drills to deliver that message. What else can he do? Victory won't come because the Hoosiers (7-7) wish it.
“We have to build more of a nasty disposition,” Crean said. “I'm focused on what the vision the program looks like in my eyes, what it has to look like every day.
“It's not going to happen overnight. You can't bestow it on anybody. I wish you could, but you can't.”
Crean spoke from the wreckage of the Ohio State debacle. Growth is not pleasant. Twenty-five-point defeats via submissive play do not make for great sleeping nights. Youth might be wasted on the young, but it is survived by the older.
“There's got to be a demeanor, a toughness and a grit that we can walk out there every day and say we're getting closer (to that vision),” Crean said. “I'm not down on anybody in a sense of they can't do this or that, but it's part of this …process of trying to bring (this program) back.”
Illinois coach Bruce Weber feels Crean's pain. He has his own consistency issues with starting freshman guards D.J. Richardson and Paul Brandon in the Illini's 10-5 start. But Weber balances that with veteran guard Demetri McCamey and veteran forwards Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale.
Inexperience has left the Illini facing huge deficits; experience has helped them overcome those deficits. They rallied from 23 points down to win at Clemson. They rallied from a 21-point deficit against Gonzaga only to lose. They have four losses by four points or less, one in overtime.
“We have to figure out why we have slow starts,” Weber said. “We're learning how to finish games and make plays at key moments. That's been a dilemma. We've struggled defensively in some key situations. I hope being in those experiences will help us.”
All five Illinois starters score in double figures, with McCamey leading with a 13.8 average. Mike Davis averages a double-double (12.4 points, 10.0 rebounds). Mike Tisdale, a 7-1 center, averages 11.7 points and 5.7 rebounds. Richardson is at 11.0. Brando is at 10.4.
IU's Jones is from Champaign and knows Weber and his staff well. But there was never a push to sign him.
“He's a great kid,” Weber said. “He's been around the program quite a bit.
“At the time he was in high school, we had a backlog of guards. We had McCamey, Chester Frazier and Jeff Jordan. I don't know, even if we had had a scholarship, that it would have worked out. I'm not sure it would have been the right fit. He got an opportunity at Indiana and he took advantage of it.”
How's this for an advantage: Jones has averaged 22.0 points in his last four Big Ten games, 21.0 points this season.
“I'm just playing, and when I see the opening, I take them.”