IOWA CITY, Iowa — Tom Crean appeared defeated after his team’s latest loss, his eyes fixed to the floor and his coarse voice softened.
The Indiana coach stood along a wall inside the hallway that leads from the visitor’s locker room to the playing surface at Carver-Hawkeye Arena and tried to pick apart the mistakes that led to the Hoosiers’ fifth consecutive loss.
“It’s not how we practice,” Crean said, explaining the many mistakes that have unraveled Indiana’s season.
There’s a disconnect between the team Crean says he sees behind the scenes and the one that takes the court on game days.
Right now, there appear to be few solutions for spanning that divide.
In a season where the Big Ten is, for the most part, a muddled mess of mediocrity, Indiana’s only course for salvaging something meaningful would be a run through the conference tournament, which begins in two weeks. Even for an IU program that hasn’t won two games in the Big Ten Tournament since 2003, it’s not out of the question given the landscape of the league.
Getting to that point, however, will require a fix that Indiana has so far appeared incapable of administering.
With three regular-season games remaining — and losses in seven of the past eight games — there is a palpable disconnection within IU’s program.
The season-ending injuries to Collin Hartman and OG Anunoby aside, IU’s active players don’t fit well together. Worse, when it gets to crunch time, there appears to be little semblance of a plan.
Compounding problems is the fact that Crean has tried multiple approaches for getting his message through. Few avenues have worked.
He has mixed lineups and rotations, he’s called out his junior backcourt, he’s tried specific individual workouts in practice, he’s spent more time than he’d like on remedial drills that have so far failed to resonate.
And, at least publicly, he has praised these Hoosiers for battling.
“I’ll give this team tremendous credit,” Crean said on the radio prior to Tuesday’s 96-90 overtime loss to Iowa. “… You can’t tell the difference with this team that we’re on a losing streak or we’re on a winning streak, because their work and energy level are so high.”
Unfortunately for Indiana, that hasn’t always been the case when it matters.
Tuesday saw the continuation of a troubling trend for the Hoosiers, who have now lost four of their past five games by no more than two possessions.
Point to any number of areas to see how that’s happened.
For one, Indiana doesn’t do enough to keep Thomas Bryant engaged as a priority of its offensive game plan. Bryant was featured on only 18 percent of available possessions at Iowa — the second lowest usage rate for the sophomore since he was used on merely 15 percent of available possessions in a 90-60 whooping at Michigan last month.
Turnovers, too, remain a constant source of frustration.
During their last eight games, the Hoosiers have posted turnover percentages of .265, .184, .234, .206, .238, .223, .206, .271.
Indiana is No. 13 in Big Ten play with a conference-wide turnover rate of 21.5 percent. For comparison, Michigan leads the league with turnovers on 14.3 percent of its possessions.
“This is not Aaron Rodgers or Andrew Luck trying to throw it through the keyhole,” Crean said. “Let’s just hit the window. … That’s all we need to do. Sometimes, I think we think we are Aaron Rodgers or Andrew Luck trying to get points through degree of difficulty.”
Repeatedly, Indiana players have talked about making the simple plays instead of trying to do too much. But the Hoosiers have not followed through with that message nearly enough to find lasting success.
That’s part of the disconnection this program has yet to solve.