INDIANAPOLIS -- The question wasn’t terribly difficult or even unique. Odds are Tom Crean has heard it a few hundred times in his coaching career.
But when asked, minutes after his Indiana team lost to Illinois 64-54 in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, what his message was for his team, Crean paused. He paused for a really long time, started to talk and then stopped himself, looked up to the ceiling as if trying to divine an answer from the tiles and finally answered.
“We have to match the toughness and competitive spirit every time we play,” he said.
Crean went on for a bit longer on that same theme, until finally he came around to the real answer and the reason for that long pause.
“I try to deliver that message differently,” he said, “because I’ve given it a few times.”
Which, of course, is exactly the problem with the Hoosiers. The message isn’t getting through now and hasn’t gotten through all season. The same things that ailed them in November are still points of emphasis now -- smart defense, commitment for an entire game, grit and determination.
It’s all added up to an abysmal 17-15 record that, as pedestrian as that reads, is actually not that good. It includes the helter-skelter results that mirror this helter-skelter season -- wins against Iowa and Ohio State, losses to Penn State and Purdue.
Indiana is young, relying almost exclusively on freshmen and sophomores (Will Sheehey being the exception), but just like folks down the highway in Kentucky are tired of hearing that refrain, the message is falling on deaf ears in Bloomington too.
The Hoosiers are headed to the NIT -- Crean made it perfectly clear after the loss to the Illini that he believes and wants his team in the postseason -- except no one wants to go to the NIT.
In a lot of ways, it’s not entirely this particular team’s fault. The aggravation and impatience that is suddenly voicing its displeasure around the Hoosier State (a Twitter pulse check postgame found serious elevated blood pressure) is almost a lingering hangover from last year’s Sweet 16 exodus.
So much was expected from that team a year ago, promised even. After the long road back from Kelvin Sampson Exile, Indiana was back -- preseason No. 1, Final Four aspirations, a national program enjoying its place in the sun once again -- but it never materialized, ending a weekend before the Final Four in Atlanta.
Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo left, and so some reorganization was to be expected. But with a good freshman class coming in and Sheehey and Yogi Ferrell back, this was supposed to be the time that the Hoosiers do what the Hoosiers always did. They would regroup because the top programs never had to be rebuilt over and over again.
And now this, back to the dregs of the NIT, back to asking fans to be patient through some growing pains after there were so many rebirthing pains before then.
“We have the talent,” Crean said. “We just have to get to growing up and continue to learn.”
Except that’s a tough message for Crean to deliver, almost as difficult as trying to drive the message home to his team.