Indiana waited more than a year to celebrate a victory like the one over Pittsburgh.
So before the locker room became too exuberant Tuesday night, coach Tom Crean gave the Hoosiers a quick lesson about reality: He told his players they had three days to get ready for their old rival, Kentucky.
As Crean knows, this is not just some ordinary Wildcats team coming to Bloomington, Ind., on Saturday. This is a national championship contender, the best team Indiana has faced so far and maybe the best team they’ll face all season.
“I told my team they’re No. 2, but they’re No. 4?” Crean asked after the game. “By Friday night, they might be No. 1 with the way they’re playing. You want to talk about Kentucky? They’re the real deal.”
Crean’s assessment shows just how much has changed since these two traditional college powers met last December.
Back then, the Hoosiers were in full rebuilding mode after absorbing the punishment of the school’s first major NCAA scandal in nearly half a century. Crean had just nine scholarship players, one senior and three players taller than 6-foot-6. Predictably, the undermanned Hoosiers were overwhelmed in a 72-54 blowout that could have been even worse.
This year, the Hoosiers (4-4) have more talent and depth but still lack experience. The leading scorers are freshmen, Maurice Creek at 15.6 points per game and Christian Watford at 13.3. Sophomore Verdell Jones is third at 12.5.
Kentucky, however, turned things around in less than eight months.
After an inexplicable season-opening loss to VMI last season and then failing to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1991, the Wildcats replaced coach Billy Gillispie with John Calipari.
Calipari persuaded star forward Patrick Patterson to spend one more year in college and won over heralded recruit John Wall, providing the inside-outside combination that has Kentucky back among the national powers and widened the gap between the two border state rivals.
Kentucky has responded with a 9-0 start and wins over defending national champion North Carolina and perennial power Connecticut, though Calipari insists the Wildcats haven’t played that well.
“We are 4-5, that is what we are,” he said after Wednesday’s 64-61 win over UConn. “I know we have a nice will to win and we are doing some good stuff. I told them in there we need to stop drinking the poison and do better in practice.”
Crean knows better.
He’s seen the tapes and realizes the Hoosiers face a monumental challenge matching up with Kentucky’s speed, depth and experience - things the Hoosiers are still trying to develop.
Wall averages 19.0 points with Patterson at 16.6.
“He (Calipari) inherited some really good players, and then he went out and recruited some outstanding players,” Crean said, explaining the difference between the two restoration projects. “They are impressive. Their transition game is as good as anybody in the country.”
But for Indiana, there may not be a better time to get this kind of test.
After losing four of five, Indiana headed to New York City on Tuesday, desperately needing a victory. Mission accomplished.
Indiana was more rugged than usually physical Pittsburgh, building a 17-point second-half lead and rolling to a 74-64 victory that gave the Hoosiers their first signature win in Crean’s two-year tenure and a major injection of excitement.
“Our hard work is starting to pay off,” Jones said. “To get a win against a big team like this, I think, it really motivates us to keep coming into practice and keep getting better. It just feels so good to get that big win.”
Now Indiana heads home to Assembly Hall, where they are 3-1 this season, with a fresh outlook, renewed hope and what they anticipate will be a boisterous crowd.
Is it enough to upset Kentucky?
“He (Calipari) is an incredible coach and he has a lot of talent and he knows how to utilize it,” Crean said. “So we are going to have a very small margin of error against them.”