It's been a drastically different season so far for the Hoosiers.
After spending a good deal of time last year ranked as the No. 1 team in the country, Indiana has yet to crack the top 25 this season. A five-loss record and a 1-2 start to Big Ten signaled that this year's group — an extremely young one — wasn't going to be like last year's: a team that grabbed a one-seed in the NCAA Tournament and accounted for two of the top four picks in the NBA Draft.
But maybe Tuesday changes that a little.
The Hoosiers scored an incredible, 75-72 upset win over the fourth-ranked Wisconsin Badgers, a team that had yet to lose a game this season. Now there's one less undefeated team in the country, and now Tom Crean's bunch has something to really be proud of.
"To the team it means a great deal," Crean said after the game. "This is a high-level winning program long before I came and long after I'm here. To me the team needs this. ... We got a lot better in the last couple days. It's just amazing what happens when some real confidence starts to come. It's still a fight to get them to believe. That's even because when we got down 10, they still don't quite understand. Sometimes they're down like that when they're not used to it, and 15 looks like 25 or 10 looks like 20. That's not true. There are a lot of possessions in the game. I have great confidence in them, and I hope they looked back and saw that I as a coach and coaching staff we felt like it was just a matter of us stemming the tide. But you've got to make moves in the game, see what happens, some work, some don't. Bottom line is we persevered."
The Hoosiers trailed by 10 with 13 and a half minutes left before closing the game on 33-20 run to even their conference record at 2-2. It's the second straight win for Indiana and the second straight comeback win after trailing by double digits. The Hoosiers overcame a 15-point deficit for a win last weekend against Penn State.
It's a very sudden turn of events after the Hoosiers were handed back-to-back losses by Illinois and Michigan State to start the Big Ten season. The Hoosiers were run out of their own building by the Spartans on Jan. 4, losing a 73-56 decision and looking the much inferior team doing it. Ten days later, though, they had enough to topple the Badgers.
"They're just getting better," Crean said. "I'm not ready to quantify that and say something miraculous has happened. It hasn't. There is a lot of room for improvement. When you win them every day, you're focused on the improvement more than you're focused on the successes. I think this is great. The other day really helped change us because two things happened that hadn't happened. We made a big comeback, OK? Fifteen points down. We haven't done that, OK? Then we were phenomenal. I think we executed on 10 of our last 11 possessions in the Penn State game whether we scored or got fouled. We hadn't done that either. So all of a sudden, you get into a game like that, a tough team that everybody has respect for, our guys have respect for, and you find a way to accomplish two things that you haven't done. So you can't quantify that. But, again, some of that carried over into (Tuesday) night. Hopefully, we'll learn more from this and learn more in the next game and continue to have good practices and continue to improve."
A confidence-boost is just what Indiana needed following a sluggish start that can be attributed to breaking in a horde of new players. The amount of youth is phenomenal, with only four players on the roster older than sophomores. Of Crean's much-heralded recruiting class that includes seven freshman, only one has made a big splash right out of the gate. That's Noah Vonleh, who is averaging 12.1 points and nine rebounds per game and might be the conference's top freshman. Though flashes of brilliance have been there from others, including Stanford Robinson, who scored 13 points in Tuesday night's win.
The few older players know a win like this is important for those youngsters.
"Yeah, obviously having young guys and getting those games very close and even the way we called it back I think we were down 15 twice in (the Penn State) game. Just the way those guys know that you can win games regardless of what the score is really helped us," senior Will Sheehey said. "The more games that they had that are close like that definitely helps those guys. Yogi (Ferrell) and I played in a bunch of games like that, but for the younger guys to know that the game is not over at a certain point really helps."