All eyes were on Indiana on Tuesday night, and the Hoosiers turned in their best performance of the young season.
Playing in front of a national audience on ESPN for the first time this year, Indiana earned everybody’s attention for all the right reasons. On a big stage, the Hoosiers halted the collective laughter at the program’s recent failures, both on and off the court.
Indiana 81, Pittsburgh 69. Who saw that coming after last week?
"We had to go back and reassess our intensity level," freshman guard Robert Johnson said. "When you face adversity, you have two options, to get better or get worse. That's something we always talk about. We decided as a team that we wanted to get better."
For at least one night, fans got a glimpse at what this Indiana team has the potential to be. How good is Pittsburgh? I don’t know, and I don’t care. The Panthers (4-3) didn’t play well — they somehow only had 14 second-chance points off of 25 offensive rebounds — but they’re certainly much better than Lamar and UNC Greensboro, and the Hoosiers (6-1) struggled to finish games against those teams.
It’s nearly impossible to figure this Indiana team out.
Beat SMU. Lose to Eastern Washington. Cut it close against UNC Greensboro. Beat Pittsburgh.
Who are the real Hoosiers?
On Tuesday night, they were a team that looked much better than many projected them to be this season. They looked like a team capable of not only making the NCAA Tournament, but generating some noise once they get there.
Just days after struggling to close out one of the worst Division 1 teams, Indiana was running Pitt out of the building. And the Hoosiers did it with things widely considered to be their weaknesses before Tuesday night.
They did it by outworking Pittsburgh on the offensive glass. Indiana didn’t win the rebounding battle, but it kept Pittsburgh from dominating the boards, and that was a win in and of itself. The Hoosiers had 13 offensive rebounds, and had more second-chance points (17) than the Panthers.
They did it by defending at a high level, from start to finish. Pitt shot exactly 13-of-36 in each half (36.1 percent).
And they did it with the contributions of young role players that didn’t factor into anybody’s season preview this fall.
Emmitt Holt, who had played only 17 minutes entering Tuesday night, stole the show and changed the outlook of Indiana’s season. He had a team-high 15 points on 6-of-6 shooting, five rebounds and two blocked shots in 19 minutes.
Holt showed off a high basketball IQ on both ends of the floor, and he gave the Hoosiers the consistent interior presence it so desperately needs. Hanner Mosquera-Perea was better than he had been in the second half, but Holt was nothing short of tremendous.
He finished through contact on multiple occasions, made key deflections on the defensive end, and held his own on the glass against a team that relentlessly attacks the boards.
It’s one game and one game only, but it’s a positive glimpse at what the Hoosiers can do with a post presence. If Holt can do what he did Tuesday night on a regular basis, Indiana is three or four wins better.
”I guess it came out of the blue,” Holt said afterward. “Just something that came about.”
Added Indiana coach Tom Crean: “We hadn’t seen an Emmitt quite like that. That’s a pretty good Emmitt right there. He’s gaining confidence, I think that’s the big thing.”
One more important note on Holt: His success seemed to make Mosquera-Perea more hungry when he was on the floor in the second half. He’s being challenged for his starting spot and his minutes, and that figures to result in better production from him.
Collin Hartman, who has been a pleasant surprise all season, turned in his best game against Pitt. The sophomore had seven points and seven rebounds — four on the offensive end — and made numerous hustle plays that brought the Assembly Hall crowd to its feet in the second half.
On one sequence, Hartman boxed his man out, grabbed an offensive rebound, scored and was fouled. He missed the free throw, but tracked the ball all the way to the left corner and grabbed another offensive board.
It’s that kind of hustle, that kind of determination, that will help the Hoosiers earn fans back, both locally and around the country.
”They’ve learned that when something is taken away, they respond to that,” Crean said. “They’re going to go one way or the other. They are either going to respond in a positive, hungry way about it, or they’re going to get down and pout. They haven’t done that.”
The Hoosiers beat down Pittsburgh on Tuesday night, and they did it essentially without starting point guard Yogi Ferrell. The junior was in foul trouble all night and wasn’t much of a factor until the closing minutes.
In his absence, Robert Johnson ran the point like a natural. He finished with nine assists to only two turnovers.
Tuesday night was a story of Indiana’s depth, something the Hoosiers never had a season ago. Holt replaced Mosquera-Perea and Johnson replaced Ferrell, and both did so better than Tom Crean could have ever hoped.
”With our team, all our guys are pretty much interchangeable,” Johnson said. “I’m pretty much comfortable running the team, getting us in the offense and things like that. It all worked out.”
It’s clear early on that Indiana has no problem getting up for the big games. The challenge now will be playing the same way against lesser opponents, and playing that way when they’re finally forced to live the friendly confines of Assembly Hall.
”We have to come out as prepared against Savannah State as we were for Pittsburgh,” Crean said. “Same thing when we go to New York next week. These are going to be great teams and we have a long way to go before we’re one of those teams.
”The only way you get there is to come out every game and attack it the same way. That’s what we have to do. That’s up to the coaches. That’s up to the leadership of the group."
Who are the Hoosiers? Through seven games, it’s really hard to say.
But for at least one night, they were back in the public eye, and for the right reasons this time. After everything that has transpired, that’s at least one reason the program is still headed in the right direction.VIDEO: An emotional Tom Crean reacts to win
What We Learned: IU 81, Pitt 69