BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The past two weeks have been nothing shy of misery at Indiana.
An accident that left Devin Davis with a serious brain injury partnered with the suspensions of Troy Williams and Stanford Robinson pushed the Hoosiers to what seemed like another season on the brink.
There were more than a few cries for Tom Crean’s head, and almost a universal outcry that the current crop of Hoosiers were sullying the candy-striped pants.
Those same naysayers stood in full-throated unison on Thursday night. Some wore their own red-and-white-striped knockoffs; most sported IU logos somewhere on their wardrobe. Instead of screaming in anger, they cheered.
There is no balm like the aloe of victory, and, for at least one night, Indiana basked in it, beating No. 22 SMU 74-68.
Wins buy coaches a pass and players forgiveness for their transgressions.
Losses, or at least less successful results, deliver impatience and intolerance.
The off-court issues have been a black eye, but they are exacerbated by the on-court failures. The Hoosiers were 17-15 last season and lost to Syracuse in the Sweet 16 as a No. 1 seed two years ago.
So when Williams and Robinson returned to the lineup, (Emmitt Holt was eligible but did not get into the game) it wasn’t about being pardoned. It was about delivering a much-needed victory.
“That was a very important win against a very good team," Crean said.
Ultimately, whether this season comes off the ledge or teeters over it won’t be decided by the fans’ reaction. Crean really has only a marginal say so. It comes down to the players and what they’ve learned, whether their words of apology and contrition are real or empty.
They’re saying they’ve figured it out, that the mess of the past two weeks has been both a cold bath of reality and an impetus to change.
On Wednesday, before they were eligible to play their first game of the season, Robinson, Williams and Holt talked about little things they believe will bring big results.
Where once they went to dinner just in pairs, now they go in big groups. They cut off the outside voices that had turned their locker room into Babel, listening to each other instead and blocking everyone else out. Practices have been tougher and more focused. They’ve circled the proverbial wagons so tightly that there isn't room for anyone else.
“Since everything happened, everybody wants to be inside our program and know what’s going on," Williams told me on Wednesday, the day before the Hoosiers hosted SMU. “We’ve separated ourselves. It’s just us now. It’s about us."
Added Holt, who was driving the car that struck Davis, “It was like a reality check. It really impacted all of us."
Fans are understandably holding off on going all-in. Three home games isn't enough of a sample size to declare the problem solved. Even Crean admitted he’s not ready to proclaim things are resolved.
“The thing with adversity, you’re going to go one of two ways," Crean said. “It’s either going to break you or it's going to bond you. It’s too early to have an answer to either one of those. I’d be foolish to say that."
But the SMU game offers promise toward that goal. This was a game that took moxie and guts to win. Larry Brown’s team, even without Emmanuel Mudiay and Markus Kennedy, is a good team. SMU is long and active and obviously well coached.
It had extra size where the Hoosiers have virtually none. For a while, it looked like size ultimately would matter. Midway through the first half, SMU led 20-8, killing Indiana on the boards and in the paint.
It was a gap that seemed ominous, one that would fuel the existing fire.
Then the Hoosiers rallied. After starting 2-of-9 from behind the 3-point arc, they hit five of their next seven, opening up a five-point halftime lead.
SMU went on another run in the second half, this time 10-0, but the Hoosiers shrugged it off to even up the game.
Up just two, Hanner Mosquera-Perea, the only player that really qualifies as a big man for Indiana, stepped up. All of 6-foot-9, he had been overmatched for much of the night. Yet when Ryan Manuel came in for a posterizing one-handed dunk, Mosquera-Perea stood firm and took the charge.
The crowd and Brown both erupted, and the Hoosiers then hit back-to-back threes to go up by eight. SMU never led again.
“Oh my goodness, that might have been the loudest the building was all night, and deservedly so," Crean said.
So what happens next? While it has been tested off the court, Indiana hasn't really gotten that test on it. All three of its first games have been at home, as are its next five. The first real challenge doesn’t come until Dec. 9, when the Hoosiers face Louisville in the Jimmy V Classic.
The arduous Big Ten season follows, and only then will these first two weeks be labeled as a bad patch or a sign of bad things to come.
But at least for one game, there seemed to be progress -- and the sweet salve of victory.