The days leading up to the holidays have become a feast for college basketball fans featuring exciting match-ups before the conference seasons start. On Saturday December 19th, the University of Virginia (8) outlasted Villanova (12) 86-75; Utah avenged last year’s NCAA tournament loss to Duke (7) with an OT 77-75 win; and Xavier (10) finished its preseason with an unblemished 11-0 record, defeating Auburn 85-61.
In a battle of storied programs, North Carolina (11) knocked off UCLA (22) by a convincing 89-76 score. In an intense battle resulting in a huge upset – unless you believe that the University of Kentucky’s number four rating was as over-inflated as their fans’ forty-and-oh sized egos – Ohio State out-shot, out-rebounded and out-hustled the Wildcats to a 74-67 victory in the CBS Sport Classic matchup in the Barclay Center in Brooklyn.
In Indianapolis, Indiana and Notre Dame met up to feature two of the best offenses in college basketball. Notre Dame’s potent combination of point guard Demetrius Jackson and big man Zach Auguste contributed to the number two offense in the nation. The game doesn’t pack the wallop of a Duke-North Carolina rivalry, it provided an opportunity for a critical game for both teams.
The important win for Indiana provides an opportunity for several observations.
Indiana does not give up. Trailing at one juncture by sixteen points, the gritty Hoosiers fought hard throughout the game to end up with an 80 – 73 win over in-state rival Notre Dame at the Crossroads Classic at Banker’s Life Fieldhouse. Coach Crean would later say that the team received quality contributions from all the players. James Blackmon, Jr., Robert Johnson, Yogi Ferrell and Collin Hartman all contributed long range buckets that whittled away the Notre Dame lead. When Indiana balances urgent tenacity with individuals playing within themselves, they are a difficult team to control.
Indiana has too many players that think “I’m going to score; give me the ball.” The motion offense that was part and parcel to Indiana basketball has given way to the NBA individual effort mentality. While the game is no longer played with a “three passes before looking to score” discipline, the extra pass produces more open shots and shimmies the defense out of position, which can help in rebounding. Indiana’s moving the basketball to the hoop does produce some positives. The Hoosiers were 16-23 from the free throw line, making twice as many shots as the Irish attempted.
Indiana commits silly turnovers or makes poor judgments at critical moments. The turnovers are often a result of the frantic pace at which Indiana moves the ball up the court. The legendary “Hurrying Hoosiers” live up to their name and the offensive mistakes mount. The poor judgments can be seen in forcing the ball to the basket, lack of communication and movement on defense, and being unaware of basic things in the flow of the game.
For example, Troy Williams makes a terrific steal with under a minute left in the game, with Indiana sporting a two point lead. Instead of pulling the ball back and working for a strong shot – and eating a little bit of time off the clock – Williams drives on the basket against three Irish defenders. Fortunately, he was fouled and able to hit his two shots, but the outcome could just as easily been a clanged lay-up and returning the ball to Notre Dame.
Indiana is better when Ferrell does not have to be the leading scorer. Yogi Ferrell can get hot from beyond the three-point stripe and seems to score almost at will. He is quick off the first step, changes directions more than adequately, and gains an advantage off most defenders driving to the basket. But Indiana is a better team when Ferrell is truly playing the point guard position. Ferrell has a keen eye for the whole floor. He seems to always be aware of where the opponent’s defense is out of position. Ferrell can score with the best of them. When he doesn’t feel as if he has to carry the team in scoring, Indiana’s many offensive threats make them a difficult team for anyone to guard.
Indiana still seems to lack calm, savvy leadership. But there are glimmers of hope. Sophomore Robert Johnson continues to be a quiet, consistent presence for the Hoosier team. Johnson played 32 minutes against Notre Dame and produced game-steadying numbers – 17 points on 6 for 9 shooting, three rebounds, three assists, two blocks and no turnovers. He is drilling the three-pointers at 57.5 percent. The numbers shout that Johnson is playing within his game, not trying to force things to happen, which seems to be the leadership stream of some. Perhaps more importantly, Johnson is providing a strength and urgency that is helping his teammates become more aware on the defensive side of the ball.
He certainly isn’t calm, but Thomas Bryant showed some clear maturity in Saturday’s game. Two fouls sent him to the bench early, but he did not commit another one the entire game. He finished with 10 points and 5 rebounds in 21 minutes. Notre Dame’s powerful center, Zach Auguste, collected 7 rebounds and pushed through 12 points, both below his season averages. After being schooled by Duke, the freshman responded with numbers that speak louder than just a respectable performance. Indiana has become accustomed to its big men picking up quick fouls, sitting on the bench, and then returning to commit more fouls and make decisions that were not within the flow of the game. Bryant kept his mind in the game on the bench, and then came back onto the court to provide a strong presence against an extremely talented center.
Coach Crean is not a wizard on the sidelines like a John Wooden, but his demeanor and leadership has stayed steady and strong when the team and fans were spinning like a whirlpool. His adjustment to a zone defense was the right decision to pull the team together and to stop a Notre Dame offense that was dominating the game. ESPN’s Dakich marveled that they set up a 1-3-1 defense. After the game Coach Crean and some of the players said it was really a 2-3 scheme. Collin Hartman grinned and called it a rotating 2-3. What it appeared to be was a zone defense where the players were communicating with each other, aware of where the ball AND key players were located at all times. That kind of movement and communication – rotation if you will – gives the defense a varying look on the floor. The variance and the intensity held the number two offense in the nation to only one field goal in the final six minutes of the game.
Troy Williams can be a phenomenal force in a basketball game. Williams plays with urgency and reckless abandon. That pace is going to produce mistakes, but his positives far out-weigh the lapses. Troy ended the game with 18 points and 10 rebounds. His leaping ability and dunks almost always make the day’s highlight reel. His movement to the basket, especially in the second half, proved unstoppable by the Irish defenders. For Indiana to have BigTen success, Williams will need to play the way he did in the second half of the Notre Dame game: focused, within his abilities, and dominant on the boards.
Up next for the Hoosiers, Assembly Hall opens its doors to Kennesaw State at 6:00pm on Tuesday, December 22nd.