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COLUMN

Will IU ever figure out this basketball equation?

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For more on college sports, follow Pete DiPrimio via Twitter at www.twitter.com/pdiprimio

Hoosiers show signs of being close

Sunday, March 9, 2014 - 12:01 am

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – If Indiana ever gets this basketball equation figured out, look out.

Is there time to get it figured?

When you're dealing with the teen age brain, and IU has teen age brains to spare, nothing is sure except … well … nothing is sure.

If the Hoosiers stop with the self-inflicted misery, if they secure the ball and stay with the guys who can hurt them, if they run an offense that looks like an offense – if you saw Saturday night's first half against Michigan, you saw what that means – they can do something in the upcoming Big Ten tourney.

That doesn't mean win it, as in win four games in four days, although that's the only way it makes the NCAA tourney field. It does mean win a couple of games.

Yes, that includes Michigan, which likely doesn't want to face the Hoosiers again until next year. That could happen on Friday.

We'll explain why in a moment.

Saturday night's 84-80 loss to the Big Ten champion Wolverines was a snap shot of what's right and what's wrong with this team.

IU is 17-14 because it turns it over too much, shoots too poorly and makes just enough mistakes to lose. It has lost nine games by seven or fewer points, four by four or fewer.

It didn't need a miracle to win most of those.

On Saturday, the Hoosiers hit their first nine shots of the game, got big-time contributions from freshmen Troy Williams, Devin Davis, Stanford Robinson and Noah Vonleh, showed resiliency when before they'd found submission and, in short, offered signs of how close they are.

Close, but not there yet. Michigan, after all, scored 23 points off of IU's 15 turnovers.

This was a problem in November. It still is. Blame youth, coaching, decision making, speed of play, the polar vortex. It ruined what could have been a special regular season.

That leaves the postseason.

“Our freshmen are growing up,” coach Tom Crean said, “but freshmen are freshmen. We have a lot of them. We expect a lot of them. We coach them hard and tough. They're learning and maturing.

“When that turns into consistency, we'll be a really good team. In the meantime, this is what it looks like when it's not there. You have a week like this. You beat Ohio State, lose at home (to Nebraska) because you make too many mistakes. You come into Michigan (and nearly win).”

For 22 minutes, IU was the better team before Michigan asserted itself. It had the Hoosiers on the brink of a blowout.

That didn't happen.

Does that mean something? Only if IU follows up with a special Big Ten tourney performance. Otherwise, well, bad teams find ways to lose.

The Hoosiers are too good to be bad.

Basketball doesn't have to be quantum physics, although it sometimes looks that way when IU hits the court. On Saturday Crean started three freshmen – Williams, Davis and Robinson – and played four in stretches (Vonleh returned from a two-game absence caused by an inflamed left foot).

Michigan (23-7, 15-3) started one freshman – guard Derrick Walton Jr.

Yes, that mattered.

“The whole story with our youth,” Crean said, “and it's true when you look around the country, at any team playing any type of young people -- freshmen and sometimes sophomores. You get inconsistency.

“You want to have a consistent team. You can't win without it. At the same time, you have to go through the growing pains of getting it.”

The pain here is that IU will be either a No. 8 or a No. 9 Big Ten tourney seed. It depends on the outcome of today's Minnesota-Penn State game. Either way, if it beats either Illinois or Minnesota (the opponent depends on today's games), it will play Michigan on Friday.

The Hoosiers beat the Wolverines at Assembly Hall last month. They nearly beat them at Crisler Arena. They are capable of beating them again, this time at Indianapolis' Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

They are capable, if veterans Will Sheehey and Yogi Ferrell play like All-Big Ten players, if Vonleh gets his double-double mojo back, if they don't turn it over at a mind-boggling rate, of being a very dangerous team.

“In looking at this team,” Crean said, “I didn't have anybody who felt we would lose (at Michigan). That's what you want. You have to have that mentality, that hard-nosed, intense mentality, that gives you a great feeling that you can build on.

“We still have same mistakes show up. We gave to get better on the glass. Our young guys have to grow and mature. They have to lose some of the inconsistencies that go with being young. If that happens, we'll see what happens next week.”

In other words, if they figure it out.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Pete DiPrimio at pdiprimio@news-sentinel.com.