Way back in November, with Indiana's fan base still smarting from an early NCAA tournament exit, the Hoosiers stumbled through a presumptive Hawaiian vacation that strengthened calls for coach Tom Crean to be fired.
A favorite to win the Maui Invitational, Indiana instead lost to both Wake Forest and UNLV—two middling teams—and struggled against awful St. John's. Two games later, the Hoosiers were straight up embarrassed at Duke, losing by 20 and giving up 94 points, at an astounding rate of 1.52 points per possession.
Indiana's lousy performance gave ammunition to Crean's critics: sure, he can recruit top talent, but he doesn't always turn that talent into wins. The Hoosiers can score, but they don't play defense.
That was then.
Since that Duke loss, Indiana has been the Donald Trump of college basketball, a team that just keeps winning. The Hoosiers beat Notre Dame after a thrilling comeback, won their first seven Big Ten games, shrugged off a slip-up at Penn State, and kept surging while rivals Michigan State, Iowa, and Maryland faltered.
On Tuesday night in Iowa City, Indiana clinched the Big Ten title outright. Better still, Crean's club appears to be peaking at just the right time: once ranked No. 31 in the KenPom.com ratings, the Hoosiers are now ranked No. 13, and figure to keep rising.
Of course, a few caveats apply: Indiana has enjoyed a remarkably easy conference schedule, only playing Michigan State, Maryland, and Purdue once. The Hoosiers also caught the Hawkeyes during a slump.
Still, a Big Ten title is a Big Ten title. Crean is off the hot seat. And Indiana's turnaround can be explained in simple terms: a once inconsistent team has become consistent on both ends of the court.
The Hoosiers aren't elite on defense, but they've improved since their early-season struggles. After giving up 1.16 points per possession in Maui and against Duke, Indiana has surrendered just one point per possession in Big Ten play, good for fourth in the conference.
Meanwhile, the Hoosiers' offense is one of the best in the country. They have the nation's second-best effective field goal percentage, at 58.9 percent, and shoot well from all over the floor, ranking No. 5 nationally in three-point percentage and No. 10 in two-point percentage.
Finally, Crean's five-star recruits are playing like it.
That may sound like a no duh proposition, but Indiana fans had reason to expect otherwise—and not just because the team started the 2015-16 season so poorly.
Crean's insanely talented 2012-13 squad, which featured future NBA Draft Lottery selections Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo, met regular season expectations by winning the Big Ten title. They followed that by losing their second game in the Big Ten tournament, and then lost in the NCAA Sweet Sixteen to Syracuse, completely perplexed by the Orange's zone defense.
The next year, with two five-stars on the team—future lottery selection Noah Vonleh and Yogi Ferrell—Indiana failed even to make the NIT. In 2014-15, despite having another star-studded cast that included two five-stars, the Hoosiers struggled to a mediocre 9-9 record in Big Ten play and a first-round exit in the NCAA tournament.
This season, however, the past hasn't been prologue. Ferrell has been the best point guard in the Big Ten, and he showed that with 20 points and a dagger three at Iowa. Inside, freshman center Thomas Bryant is a rebounding monster, while backup forward/center Max Bielfeldt, a graduate transfer who was forced out at Michigan, is having the best year of his career.
All nine players in Indiana's rotation have offensive ratings of at least 108, and they all complement one another: Bryant, Bielfeldt, and O.G. Anunoby are proficient in the paint, while Ferrell and Nick Zeisloft are can't-miss from three. Collin Hartmann and Troy Williams can both shoot and rebound.
Add it all up, and the Hoosiers almost never take bad shots, either getting high-percentage ones near the rim or taking threes. From Shot Analytics:
The common narrative for teams like Indiana is that they'll be fine until they have an off night from beyond the arc—and because of that, they can't win the six games in a row required to be NCAA champions. That might be true of streaky teams, like Hoosiers squads of the past, but this group doesn't seem to have off shooting nights. They're just that good, and just that deep. Even if one player is throwing up bricks, there are enough shooters on the roster that the Hoosiers can adjust.
Indiana wasn't supposed to win the Big Ten—until it did. The Hoosiers were supposed to slip up—until they didn't. There's a book on Crean, but maybe it's time to remainder it. These Hoosiers are different than their recent predecessors, and with their combination of defensive competence and offensive firepower, they appear to have what it takes to make a run in March.