Saturday afternoon at Assembly Hall, Tom Crean’s wolf pack grew by three.
It was a day honoring four seniors. It was a day in which IU’s one-two punch of sophomore guard Verdell Jones and freshman forward Christian Watford combined for 38 points and 16 rebounds.
But it was also a day in which three other freshmen — guard Jordan Hulls and forwards Derek Elston and Bobby Capobianco — emerged as the other pieces that could eventually help turn around the IU basketball program.
Crean already had a nice foundation set in Jones, Watford and injured freshman guard Maurice Creek.
But if the trio of Hulls, Elston and Capobianco continue to play at the level they did on Saturday, the future is looking much brighter for the Hoosiers.
Sure it was just one game, and certainly they could be eliminated in the first round of this week’s Big Ten Tournament. But collectively, IU’s young talent, maybe for the first time since the Pittsburgh win, truly lived up to its previous billing as “The Next Generation.”
It was largely the joint effort of those four freshmen and one sophomore that won the game — especially down the stretch — scoring 81 of the team’s 88 points.
Despite a blown eight-point lead to end regulation, those five outscored Northwestern 19-11 in the extra period.
Crean was certainly pleased with the play from that group, but he didn’t dwell much on it either.
“It hit me once when I looked out there on the defensive end, and I knew we had four freshmen and a sophomore, but other than that I didn’t think about it,” IU coach Tom Crean said. “I was just looking at a basketball team.”
We saw that, too.
A year ago, IU was essentially just a group of guys thrown together by Crean and his coaching staff. Throughout much of this season, especially of late, the Hoosiers hardly looked much different.
Despite the occasional standout individual performances in recent weeks, the Hoosiers finally played and won like a team. That’s a huge positive move forward.
It once seemed that the Hoosiers had no other direction to go but up. Then came the 11 straight losses, and it appeared that the Hoosiers were headed the other way.
There was never much doubt about Crean’s vision for this program, but watching IU play, it was often hard to believe his players shared a similar passion and sense of urgency.
But following another big loss Wednesday, the team made some changes.
Crean started Jones at the point and pushed junior guard Jeremiah Rivers into a more limited role off the bench. He also played Watford more at the small forward position.
So while it might be but a single victory and only the team’s 10th all year, it shows how much stronger this team is having experienced great adversity.
It also shows what happens when a talented group of young players keep fighting.
Hulls and Elston, a pair of in-state recruits, were especially sharp.
Hulls, who went for a team-high and a personal career-high 24 points, hit 8-of-12 from outside. This included back-to-back triples after IU fell behind 54-51, as well as a big trey early in overtime.
Elston, meanwhile, posted a career-high 17 points, including eight in the first half and seven in overtime. He added eight rebounds, one game after a 13-point, seven-rebound effort Wednesday.
“They’re going to have a hand in turning the program,” Crean said. “You want to have program-turners, not just program guys. We’re really fortunate to have them.”
The other less-heralded freshman who made significant contributions was Capobianco. Though his stats might not show it, he’s been one of the more consistent Hoosiers of late.
Despite only eight points, the freshman big man scored six in overtime, had 7 rebounds and continues to defend well inside.
Capobianco was also 4-of-5 from the free-throw line, after he was previously 6-of-17 from the stripe.
Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, IU won’t be rebuilt on five-star recruits — at least not for now.
If Saturday’s win was a glimpse into the future, it looks like a bright one.
“It’s great. It gave us confidence. We’ll be ready for next year,” Watford said. “But first we’re going to be ready for the Big Ten Tournament coming up.”
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