No. 22 Indiana survived a scare from Rutgers and hung on for a much-needed 72-64 win on Saturday afternoon at Assembly Hall. The Hoosiers (16-5, 6-3 Big Ten) move back into a tie for second place in the conference. Here are five things I'm thinking about after the win.
1. DEFENSE (OR LACK THEREOF): Indiana's defensive issues have been well documented, and they didn't simply disappear when Rutgers came to town. Get this: Rutgers, the Big Ten's worst offensive team, had 52 points at the 11:23 mark of the second half. That was more points than the Scarlet Knights had scored in six of its nine conference games.
Much has been made of Indiana's lack of size this season, but that's only a small part of the Hoosiers' defensive problems. A bigger part is Indiana's inability to make players uncomfortable, or take them out of what they want to do. The Hoosiers haven't had the consistent mental focus or the pride it takes to get into a ball handler and refuse to let him beat you.
On Saturday, they strung together really good defensive possessions late in the game when they had to, but it's easier to do that at home. On the road, like at Purdue and at Ohio State over the last week, Indiana hasn't strung together those same stops. And on the road, offense doesn't usually come as easily.
If Indiana is going to go dancing into March, it will have to learn to string stops together on the road.
"You have to have a high level or urgency," Indiana coach Tom Crean said. "Our defensive connectedness was much better at the end of that half."
To be fair, there's two sides to the story from Saturday. Sure, Rutgers scored better than it usually does, but the Scarlet Knights made some tough shots. And while they scored 51 or fewer points in six of their nine Big Ten games entering Saturday, they also scored 67 against Wisconsin and 65 against Maryland, winning one of those games (Wisconsin) and nearly winning the other.
The point is, though, that there are too many possessions where teams score on Indiana without much resistance. It's time to stop blaming the lack of size and start defending with pride, like the Hoosiers did down the stretch on Saturday.
"Coming out of the timeout, every one of us just said, 'Come on, give it all fore these last seven minutes,'" freshman guard James Blackmon Jr. said. "We toughed it out. I don't think they got any easy buckets after that."
2. AS WILLIAMS GOES, SO GOES INDIANA?: That's what Matt Painter said after his Purdue team dominated the Hoosiers on Wednesday night in West Lafayette. And he has an excellent point. When Williams is active and energetic, Indiana usually wins, even if he makes some poor decisions over the course of the game.
"I guess when I come to play like that, we have a better chance of winning," Williams said.
Against Rutgers, Williams had 14 points and 12 rebounds on 5-of-9 shooting, a performance that mirrored one he had against Ohio State at home less than a month ago. Williams didn't start -- Nick Zeisloft and Stanford Robinson started over Williams and Robert Johnson (more on that in a second) -- but he was effective, nevertheless. If Crean was trying to send him a message, it seems it was delivered.
"That's the Troy Williams we need to have," Crean said. "The points are a byproduct of his activity, his desire to get to the basket, his desire to rebound, his energy. Usually when he plays like that, he gets the points.
"When we win, that's what it looks like. It's very easy to look and say, 'as Troy goes, the team goes.' I saw Matt Painter said that. He's right, to a degree, on that. But it's more than the points and the rebounds. It's the activity, it's the leadership, it's the energy. It's sharing his knowledge. That's why we hold Troy to a very high standard, because he is a very smart person and player."
With Williams, you have to analyze more than just the raw statistics and more than just whether he's playing under control or he isn't. Even when his stats aren't eye-popping and he's playing out of control, he can still have a positive impact on the game when he's active and energetic. But more often than not, when he's active and energetic, the other things come.
Where Williams needs to grow most is in learning to continue to play, regardless how things are going or how the other team is guarding him. Too often, Williams allows himself to be taken out of the game because shots aren't falling early or a team is playing physical with him and doesn't allow him to get to the rim. It happened at Michigan State. It happened at Ohio State. It happened, to some extent, at Purdue.
"It's very easy to get away from what your identity is," Crean said. "There's a lot of things to read, there's a lot of things to read. You've got to stay true to it, and that's where the coach comes in. ... We're trying to teach them constantly their responsibility of leadership, and it's not all about rah-rah, and it's not all about back slapping, and it's not all about chest bumping. It's about carrying it out, using your gifts, using your knowledge, and holding people responsible."
3. SHAKEUP IN THE STARTING LINEUP: As I mentioned above, Crean chose to go with Stanford Robinson and Nick Zeisloft in place of Troy Williams and Robert Johnson in the starting lineup on Saturday. He said afterward that it wasn't about sending a message, but rather more about the matchups.
Indiana is always small, but Saturday's was the smallest starting lineup it has used this season.
"This one was really about, in the case of Stan, it was about the matchup with Kadeem Jack," Crean said. "And in the case of Rob, it was more about bringing fatigue to the game. We needed to have a better push in the middle of the game.
"Those guys [Johnson and Williams] are starters. They just didn't start today.That's what it is. It's really not any deeper than that. Nobody did anything wrong. It's just a matter of changing it up and going a little bit different."
Robinson played 16 minutes, recording four points, five rebounds and two assists without a turnover. Zeisloft made two critical 3-pointers late in the second half, and finished with eight points in 17 minutes.
By the time the second half began, the original starters were back on the floor, and order was restored.
4. UGLY START...: Indiana was terrible early, and truth be told, it was lucky to be in the game by halftime. The Hoosiers started just 3-of-14 from the field and trailed by as many as eight points. Ugly wins are significantly better than ugly losses, however, and Indiana found a way to win a game it simply could not afford to lose.
"We had to grind it out," Crean said. "I hate the word grind, but we had to be really tough today to figure out a way to win it. We tried to push a few buttons that would do that, and I thought our guys really responded."
5. BUT A STRONG FINISH: The Hoosiers strung together four straight defensive stops late against Rutgers, and they turned those stops into quick, easy offense. All told, Indiana got stops on seven of Rutgers' last 10 possessions to hold off the upset-minded Scarlet Knights.
Offensively, Indiana was much cleaner in the final 20 minutes. The Hoosiers shot 60 percent from the field (12-of-20), made 5-of-8 3-pointers, and scored 40 points after halftime.
James Blackmon Jr., who scored a team-high 20 points, had 11 in the second half on 4-of-5 shooting.
"It's not about passing the eye test, it's not about being beautiful," Crean said. "It's about being productive."