BLOOMINGTON - Time might move forward, but this Indiana basketball team seems stuck in unwanted regression. Blame it on youth, fatigue, brutal schedule, Kelvin Sampson, it doesn't matter. The Hoosiers play at Wisconsin Saturday and the only certainty is that the No. 11 Badgers will not feel sorry for them.
At least IU has company in misery. North Carolina, the defending national champion, is also bumbling toward NCAA tourney irrelevance with a 13-11 record, 2-7 in the ACC. It just got whipped at home by arch-rival Duke.
IU is 9-14 and 3-8 and owns a five-game losing streak. It has lost ugly, lost close and lost in all manners in between.
Coach Tom Crean calls his team “fragile” and “not hardened enough” and “lacking inner confidence.” The problem, he said, is mental fatigue.
Lose enough and even the most veteran of teams can crack. These Hoosiers are about as far from veteran as you can get (ranking 337 out of 347 Division I teams in experience), but it doesn't matter. Playing their best at Wisconsin does.
“We have to not look back, but look forward,” sophomore guard Verdell Jones said. “Now we play at Wisconsin and we can't think much about these last two games (listless losses to Northwestern and Ohio State). We have to get better in practice and keep attacking and fight mental fatigue.”
In other words, do the same thing that has led IU to this point, just do it better against better competition, including No. 10 Michigan State on Tuesday.
“It will be difficult because there are great teams coming up, but we have the talent to keep competing,” Jones said. “Coach Crean has done a good job of keeping us focused and fighting.”
Winning, however, remains elusive and fans grumble and coaches gripe and players struggle.
“I saw a sign the other day that said, ‘Youth is no excuse,'” Jones said. “We have to fight through things every day. We're on a big stage going against big-time players. We have to perform the way Indiana people want us to.”
Wisconsin is gearing to ruin that performance. It's coming off a rare home loss (Illinois got the upset at the Kohl Center on Tuesday), but is still 18-6 overall, 8-4 in the Big Ten and just a game out of first place.
IU has other worries. It hasn't won in Madison since 1998, a span of eight straight games. But then, the Hoosiers can't even win in Assembly Hall anymore. They've lost 12 of their last 15 home games.
“I wouldn't say we're mentally exhausted,” Jones said, “but we're discouraged. We have to bounce back and it starts by fighting in practice.”
Fight equals energy and the lack of energy has been a consistent problem.
“It's hard to say what the reason is,” guard Jordan Hulls said, “but we've got to get our minds right, get everybody on the right path and take it from there. We have to have mental toughness. We've got to take the bull by the horns and work on getting better.”