This season was supposed to be the prologue of IU basketball’s rebirth — not the first chapter.
One drop from a stream of young talent fell into IU Coach Tom Crean’s bucket. It was supposed to be sufficient for “good enough” — National Invitation Tournament berth good enough.
But the Hoosiers’ 78-61 victory at Purdue on Saturday was a reminder this team is the first sign of water after wandering in the desert for what seemed like 40 years.
“You take your hat off to them because they’ve been at the bottom,” said Purdue guard Lewis Jackson, who was kept to 1-of-10 shooting. “They’ve lost to us for three years in a row. They’re tired of hearing it. You just see the maturity. As a team, they came together, so you have to take your hat off to them, but right now, it just sucks.”
This win proved IU can win on the road in the Big Ten. This win proved IU can finish games — something they struggled with in losses to Nebraska and Wisconsin.
It proved Crean can beat a team that makes fans’ blood boil, which hasn’t happened since his predecessor (he-who-shall-not-be-named) did so in 2008. This win solidified IU’s in-state dominance with victories against its three biggest basketball programs.
“Yeah, Indiana owned this state for so long, and it has definitely been one of our goals to get back the state,” freshman forward Cody Zeller said.
More than anything, this win was a step toward normalcy. IU basketball is expected to make the NCAA Tournament and be in the conversation of the best teams in the country. The journey to that point starts with smaller goals, such as beating Purdue in Mackey Arena for the first time in six years.
“To me, it looked like it meant more for them,” Purdue Coach Matt Painter said. “If we could have made that play at the end, when we were down four, and they ended up losing, it would have been a shame because they deserved to win the game. They were tougher than us. They were quicker to the basketball and definitely deserved to win.”
And that normalcy doesn’t begin with a team that belongs filed under the trio of losing seasons. That return to winning ways starts with this squad, which is checking off a list of marquee wins, albeit with difficulties in between.
“This is a different team than they’ve had before,” Painter said. “Even though some of the pieces that they have were there, they were still younger pieces.”
After the Hoosiers lost five of their last seven games entering Saturday, I thought the magic that gave No. 1 Kentucky its lone loss of the season had run out.
However, IU found its reset button.
The streak of losses and howls of doubt came to a screeching halt in the most unlikely of stations. Playing in their most hostile road environment of the season, the Hoosiers regained focus and confidence — factors that could separate an impressive end to the conference season from an underwhelming middle portion.
This team wins in Mackey but loses in Nebraska.
To be fair, it didn’t hurt that the Boilermakers shot 0-for-11 from three and 8-of-40 from the field in the first half.
But I’m willing to overlook a Purdue offense that couldn’t score on a Fisher-Price kiddie basket because at the end of the day, Indiana captured one of its three biggest wins of the season — and arguably the Tom Crean era.
So what changed? How is this season different?
A Purdue media relations assistant handed me the microphone at the postgame press conference with Painter at the podium.
“Coach, from what you’ve seen throughout the Tom Crean era at Indiana, how is this game different?”
Painter’s answer was one Crean is all too familiar with.
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