BLOOMINGTON — Close doesn't count, except when it does. Falling down is less important than the willingness to get back up.
In other words, welcome to Tom Crean's basketball world.
The Indiana coach directs a team that alternates between NCAA tourney potential and how-did-we-blow-this disappointment. It is last in the Big Ten by a big margin in turnovers per game (15.4), turnover margin (it commits nearly three more turnovers than opponents) and turnover ratio (it commits 4.3 more turnovers than assists).
It has lost seven games by seven or fewer points, four by five or fewer. With just a little smarter play it could have four more victories and be on the edge of top-25 prosperity.
Instead, it plays through 14-9 uncertainty.
Frustrating? You bet. Still, Crean sees signs that maybe the Hoosiers can figure it out in time to have a mad March.
“We are so close,” Crean says. “There are so many corners that you have to turn to be a good team. Some we have turned, and we want to make sure we don't lose sight of that. Some we haven't turned yet.
“We have to continue, whether at home or on the road, to know that we are capable. It just comes down to everyone doing his job. Don't try to do more and don't try to do less. Just do your job.”
IU prepares to host Penn State (12-12 overall, 3-8 in the Big Ten) tonight with roller-coaster production. Against powerhouse Michigan it flexed impressive defensive muscle and got the upset. It controlled the first half at Nebraska and basically controlled the first half at Minnesota. Then, as young teams can do, it turned double-digit first-half leads into turnover-driven second-half collapses.
Through it all, Crean pushes the positives. He doesn't want losses in three of the last five games to fuel a freefall into NIT obscurity – or worse.
“The more confident these guys get from the experiences they go through and the understanding of it, the better they will be,” Crean says. “The more awareness of what these situations entail and how locked in they have to be, the more the confidence will come.”
Case in point: Freshman forward Noah Vonleh leads the Big Ten in rebounding (9.5), which is no surprise, and in three-point shooting, which is.
To clarify, Vonleh is 10 of 13 for 76.9 percent in conference games from beyond the arc. The next best are Michigan State's Kenny Kaminski and Michigan's Derrick Walton, both at 50 percent. To be fair, Walton has twice as many three-point attempts. Kaminski has three times as many.
Still, when teams give the 6-foot-10 Vonleh a perimeter opening, he makes them pay.
“I know you get coaches like (Michigan State's Tom Izzo) who say, 'Put him down on the block,'” Crean says, “but he's leading the league in three-point shooting, so we might want to find a way to get him a few more three-pointers.”
Penn State coach Patrick Chambers knows all about Vonleh's versatility. Vonleh had 19 points – and went 2-for-2 from three-point range – with six rebounds in the first meeting, a 79-76 Hoosier win.
“He did a fantastic job of using his body, sealing and finding contact,” Chambers says. “He got our bigs in foul trouble.
“He is a really tough guard when he does things like that. Coach Crean will try to ride him if he thinks there's a mismatch. We're going to have to mix up some coverages and make it uncomfortable for him.”
The Nittany Lions have made opponents uncomfortable for much of the year, with the highlight coming in a surprise 71-70 overtime win at Ohio State. They have one of the Big Ten's best backcourts in D.J Newbill (17.7 points, 5.4 rebounds) and Tim Frazier (16.2 points, 5.9 assists).
A season-long problem has been finding a third consistent scorer. Brandon Taylor averages 9.8 points; Ross Travis averages 9.4.
“We need a third scorer,” Chambers says. “When we get a third scorer, we are tough to beat.
“We are not shooting the ball very well. We have gotten some good looks, but they are not going down.
“It is February and the team that is mentally toughest is going to push through and those shots are going to start to fall. We need to continue to shoot. I can't tell them not to shoot because then teams will pack the paint on Tim and D.J. We need to continue to shoot and break out of this slump.”
Still, Penn State struggles mostly because of defense. It allows 72.2 points, the worst in the Big Ten. It has lost two straight since a three-game winning streak.
“It doesn't matter what their record is,” Crean says, “they play with tremendous confidence. They play with a real edge. They get to the basket. They make free throws and they are defending better. You can't look at this team and judge them on percentages. You have to judge them on ability and their ability to create havoc on offense and defense.”