Make no mistake. The Hoosiers (9-1) have championship potential.
Sometimes you have to get nasty and rough. You have to become so fiercely competitive, so tuned in physically and mentally to what needs to be done that you refuse to lose.
On Saturday, that was Butler.
It wasn't Indiana.
Coach Tom Crean has a solution for that and it won't come from film work or speeches.
It's called the War Drill. It's an extreme rebounding and loose ball practice session. At the most intense application -– and Crean looked plenty intense even 70 minutes after Saturday's 88-86 overtime loss — football pads and helmets are used.
The drill involves 10 players –- five inside the paint, five outside. The inside players must hit their outside teammates HARD with legal basketball moves (a straight forearm, for instance) to knock them back a step. Then the inside players must turn and get the rebound. The ball can't hit the floor.
The drills can be nasty and, in a be-more-man-than-the-other-guy way, fun.
“I'm excited about the rebounding drills we're going to do,” Crean said. “I'm not sure there will be many people sharing that joy with me, but I know I'll be excited about it because right now, that's an area we have to shore up for ourselves.”
Why are the drills necessary?
Butler hammered IU on the boards like no opponent has done all season. It had 19 offensive rebounds, 27 second-chance points and 42 in-the-paint points. It would have been more if inside starters Alex Smith and Roosevelt Jones (who combined for 21 rebounds) hadn't fouled out.
The Hoosiers had spent the season dictating. They had out-rebounded opponents by 13.8, with no one coming within five rebounds of them.
On Saturday, the Bulldogs dictated.
Former IU guard Verdell Jones knew what was coming from afar. During the game he tweeted, “Crean is gonna have the guys doing football rebounding drills tomorrow.”
Crean learned the drills from his days as a Michigan State assistant coach. Under Tom Izzo the Spartans are annually among the nation's top rebounding teams and it's not because he passes out books on Zen philosophy.
If you wonder how IU got out-toughed, consider the schedule. Butler (8-2) was steeled by demanding opponents. The Bulldogs were hammered at Xavier, and got tougher because of it. They played three bruising games in three straight days at the Maui Invitational, edging Marquette and smashing North Carolina before fading against Illinois. They won at hard-to-prepare-for Northwestern.
IU's schedule didn't come close to matching that (forget the spin — it was heavy on 30-point blowout fantasy, not grind-to-the-last-second reality), and it showed in a couple of game-changing Saturday moments.
Near the end of the first half, the Hoosiers led 37-30 and were on the verge of forcing a Butler shot clock violation and a chance to extend the lead. Instead, Victor Oladipo was called for a foul that gave the Bulldogs a reset. The result — reserve forward Erik Fromm hit a three-pointer. What could have been a nine- or 10-point halftime lead was four.
That was huge.
With 1:46 left in overtime IU led 84-80 and forced a missed three-pointer by Chase Stigall. But Stigall ran down the rebound (a common theme in this game) and passed to teammate Rotnei Clarke, who buried a three-pointer.
About 30 seconds later, Butler guard Alex Barlow forced point guard Yogi Ferrell into a turnover that produced a Stigall three-pointer and an 86-84 Butler lead.
And then, with 2.3 seconds left in overtime, Barlow beat Jordan Hulls for the game-winning shot.
“We'll get back to work and figure things out,” sophomore center Cody Zeller said.
In the big picture, this can be a good thing. December losses can teach lessons blowout wins over, say, Central Connecticut State, never can.
Butler was better for its Xavier defeat. Kentucky's loss to Indiana last December helped fuel its national championship run.
The Hoosiers have three more Assembly Hall patsies in the next two weeks -– Mount St. Mary's (4-4) on Wednesday, Florida Atlantic (5-5) on Friday and Jacksonville (4-6) on Dec. 28 –- before opening Big Ten play Dec. 31 at Iowa (9-2).
The problem is IU hasn't played a true road game yet. Bankers Life Fieldhouse was packed with Hoosier fans on Saturday, although some crowd balance was achieved when fans from Butler, Purdue and Notre Dame joined forces.
The Hoosiers will be physically challenged by the Hawkeyes in a far more hostile atmosphere than they have faced all season.
Will they be up for it?
Only if they learn their Butler lesson.