Indiana's romp over Michigan Saturday night offered an adamant reminder of how quickly fortunes can change over the course of a basketball season.
Riding a six-game losing streak, the Hoosiers had been playing poor defense. They had allowed opponents to shoot better than 50 percent in conference play and had given up an average of 78.5 points in four conference games.
Some fans were panicked. With disappointing performances at home against Penn State and on the road against Northwestern, some worried that Indiana might go 0-18 in Big Ten games.
Indiana delivered relief and renewed hope with an impressive 80-61 win. The 19-point winning margin was the largest in Big Ten play for a Tom Crean team at IU. It was the biggest for a Hoosier team in a conference game since Kelvin Sampson's last IU squad defeated Michigan State by an identical 80-61 score in February 2008.
Suddenly, IU (10-8, 1-4) looked like a better team than it was last season, just like fans had expected all along. The Hoosiers accomplished what they and other young teams often struggle to do – they started with great intensity and maintained it throughout the game.
IU's defense throttled the Wolverines, holding them to 15 points in the first half, the lowest halftime total for a Hoosier opponent since 2002. A defense that had too often left 3-point shooters wide open didn't allow one of the league's best 3-point shooting attacks to get going.
"We are always going to have trouble scoring the ball when we don't shoot well from the outside, and they didn't give us a lot of good looks from the outside," Michigan coach John Beilein said.
Crean said IU emphasized defense and rebounding in practice all week.
"We had a very good carry over," he said. "We won on the defensive end, we won on the rebounding end and we took really good shots."
Indiana shot 67.4 percent for the game, hitting 29-of-43 shots. Verdell Jones, a frequent target of message board scorn, led the way with 9-of-10 shooting and 24 points, employing a variety of slicing off-balance drives and mid-range pull-ups.
"Indiana just played really well, and we couldn't stop them,'' Beilein said. "Verdell Jones III was incredible."
After falling behind early in previous conference games, Indiana got a fast start in this one on the way to its 30-15 halftime lead. The Hoosiers grabbed the first eight rebounds of the game and dominated the boards, 37-18, for the game.
"Before anybody asks me the rebounding question, I'll tell you that they only missed 14 shots," Beilein said. "There's not a whole lot of rebounds on 14 shots."
Two of the greatest areas of improvement for the Hoosiers in this game were how hard they played and how they made big plays to stem each Michigan run. The Wolverines never got closer than 10 points in the second half as Jordan Hulls – after not taking a shot in the first half - made IU's biggest plays by hitting three 3-pointers when Michigan had chances to get back into the game.
Beilein said that after taking Kansas (#3 at the time) to overtime before losing and then putting a scare into Ohio State (#3 at the time) in Michigan's last two games, both at home, what happened at IU was typical of life on the road in the Big Ten with a young team against a very hungry opponent.
The difference for the Hoosiers against Michigan, Jones said, was greater energy that came from insight gained during the past week.
"We watched a lot of film this week and film never lies," Jones said. "When you sit there and see that you're not playing hard, that messes with your mind a little bit."
IU's hunger Saturday was reminiscent of the intensity the Hoosiers faced in their previous game at Northwestern after the Wildcats had been embarrassed at Illinois. This Big Ten season is unfolding as one in which all of conference's team are capable of big performances on a given night, so fans can't easily tick off which games on the schedule are likely to be wins or losses.
IU's home loss to Penn State, for instance, doesn't look as bad now after the Lions have beaten ranked teams in Michigan State and Illinois, and had the game tied against #1 Ohio State Saturday in Columbus before falling 69-66.
With Indiana's next two games at Wisconsin, where IU lost 78-46 last season, and at Iowa, where IU lost 73-57 last season, Jones said the Hoosiers need just to keep moving forward from their improved play against Michigan.
"Just build on today," he said. "Play with a lot of energy from the tip-off to the end of the game."
Better intensity keys IU win over Michigan
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