Not long after its memorable upset victories against national title contenders Kentucky and Ohio State last month, Indiana began selling a red T-shirt proclaiming in white block letters, "WE'RE BACK."
The past three games have shown that may be premature.
Indiana is certainly nationally relevant again, but the Hoosiers still seem to be a year away from reclaiming the elite status they once held under Bob Knight. They've lost three straight to fall to 3-4 in Big Ten play, dropping a home game last Thursday to Minnesota, getting throttled on Sunday at Ohio State and squandering a double-digit lead Wednesday night at Nebraska.
The loss to previously struggling Nebraska is easily the most galling of those three both because the Huskers were 1-5 in the Big Ten entering Wednesday and because Indiana had them beat. The Hoosiers led by as many as 13 in the second half and by 11 with under seven minutes to play before surrendering all of it in a hail of turnovers, empty possessions and defensive breakdowns.
"That's a tough one to swallow," Indiana freshman Cody Zeller told reporters after the game. "Every game in the Big Ten is tough. I thought we played better, but it wasn't enough, I guess."
The truth is Indiana is probably neither as good as it looked in upsetting the Wildcats and Buckeyes nor as bad as it has looked the past six days. Zeller runs the floor as well as any center in the nation, Will Sheehey is much improved and Jordan Hulls is a deadly accurate a perimeter shooter, but the Hoosiers lack a quality point guard and don't defend on the perimeter well besides Victor Oladipo.
Indiana needs to make sure it takes advantage of a winnable home game against struggling Penn State on Sunday because the schedule stiffens again.
Three of Indiana's next four are on the road after the matchup with the Nittany Lions beginning with a trip to Madison to face Wisconsin. The Hoosiers were miserable on the road in Crean's first three seasons and are 1-2 away from Bloomington this season in Big Ten play with the lone win a six-point squeaker at Penn State.
The odds of Indiana reentering the Big Ten title race are slim, but Tom Crean definitely isn't ready to panic.
"I'd be in there throwing stuff around, angry, screaming if I felt like we didn't care or I felt we couldn't get better," Crean told reporters. "That's not the case at all. They care and we can get better. That's exactly the attitude we're taking toward this."
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