Indiana fans are pretty much past the point of moral victories. They're understanding of their current team's limitations, and cautiously optimistic about Tom Crean's impending recruiting classes, but they're fans of a blueblood program in the midst of its third-straight ugly season. Frankly, they want what all fans want. They want wins.
As expected, last night's trip to the Kohl Center didn't yield one. But it was about as encouraging as losses can get.
Why? A quick list seems apropos:
The Hoosiers -- a team that entered Thursday night with six losses in its last seven games -- played a very good, very efficient Wisconsin team to a draw for about 34 minutes. IU didn't build a big lead, only to surrender it in the second half. Nor did Indiana put together a furious but feckless late run to make the score seem closer than it was. The Hoosiers were never blown out. They were never truly inconsistent. Wisconsin almost never loses at the Kohl Center; Indiana put that maxim to the test last night, and that is an accomplish in itself.
Indiana's offense continues its impressive improvement in Crean's third year. In fact, if you read Gasaway's Hoosiers-related check-in at ESPN Insider yesterday, you saw a fantastic example of both accurate and perfectly timed analysis. Gasaway's thesis: IU's offense is, believe it or not, pretty good. The Hoosiers are scoring 1.11 points per possession in conference play, a performance standard they essentially met last night. Jordan Hulls and Christian Watford are the two main reasons for this offensive improvement; they combined for 26 points last night. And when Verdell Jones III isn't giving the ball away at a high rate, he's a pretty effective mid-range scorer, too.
Even when Indiana went cold in the second half, they managed to stay in the game by limiting turnovers and rebounding well (enough) on the defensive end to keep Wisconsin from ever truly pulling away.
This defense can get a lot better. This is as much a concern as a cause for optimism, because if Indiana's defense doesn't get better -- the Hoosiers are allowing 1.18 points per trip to opposing Big Ten offenses, thanks in large part to a disconcertingly high foul rate -- then it will continue to struggle to beat even marginal Big Ten teams. But if this defense can improve even slightly -- if Crean can get his charges to stop hacking so much, for example -- then the Hoosiers' offense can carry them through to a few more competitive performances in the rest of the Big Ten season.
All of which is not to say that Indiana is somehow going to salvage this season and, say, go to the NCAA tournament. Obviously, that's not going to happen. But if Indiana fans are willing to accept moral victories at this point in Crean's tenure, last night's impressive performance at Wisconsin should be very encouraging indeed.