USA Today

Indiana shows it can play defense in rout of Morehead State

The Hoosiers put the D back in Indiana, for at least one night. Fans won't be convinced until they do it against a better team, but Saturday night was a step in the right direction.

If you've visited any Indiana message boards, listened to any local sports radio, or talked to any Indiana basketball fans in recent weeks, you know all about Indiana's defensive issues. 

It's the hottest topic for one of largest and most passionate fan bases in all of college basketball, and it's not going away anytime soon.

But for at least one night, Indiana proved it can, in fact, play good defense, which is likely to irritate an irate fan base even more. If you are capable of doing it, why don't you do it every time?

I can't answer that question, but I can tell you the Hoosiers played much harder -- and overall better -- defense in a 92-59 rout of Morehead State on Saturday night. 

Morehead State (5-2) isn't Duke, but it's a much more formidable opponent than other teams Indiana has hosted this season. Morehead ranked 117th nationally entering the game by KenPom.com, and it was tied with Louisville giving up the fewest points (54.5) per game of any team in the country.

"It's really easy to look at one end of the court and think we're not where we need to be, like we weren't defensively the other night, but we weren't aggressive on either end of the court," Indiana coach Tom Crean said afterward. "And tonight the aggressiveness carried out in a lot of ways. I think, at the end of the year, this will end up being a very good win for us."

The Hoosiers (6-3) used Morehead State as its proverbial punching bag to relieve their collective frustration. After trailing 13-12 early, Indiana went on an 18-0 run and cruised the rest of the way. They forced 16 first-half turnovers -- including two shot-clock violations -- and scored 50 first-half points on 58 percent shooting.

Indiana held Morehead State to 31 percent shooting for the game while forcing the Eagles into 23 turnovers (Indiana had 13). On the other end, the Hoosiers shot 57 percent and got to the foul line 36 times, including 22 times in the first half. Getting to the line regularly keeps Indiana out of a portion of transition opportunities, an area where IU really struggles. 

"The challenge is, you know, daily reminders to our team that we want to go out there and get stops," said Indiana guard Yogi Ferrell. "We pride ourselves on getting as many stops in a row as we can. We want to go out there and just stop them. I feel like this game is another step in that direction for us becoming a more complete team."

Five Hoosiers scored in double figures, led by Troy Williams with 16 points. Max Bielfeldt was terrific on Saturday, and really jump-started the Hoosiers off the bench. The Michigan grad transfer had 12 points on a perfect 5-of-5 shooting, 4 rebounds (3 offensive) and 3 blocks in 16 minutes.

"I thought he was really good, thought he played like a leader," Crean said. "He's had a couple of great days of practice, and played really confident."

Indiana fans won't be convinced until they see that type of performance on a more consistent basis or against elite competition (and I don't blame them), but there's no doubt that Saturday night was a step in the right direction. The Hoosiers got knocked out in Durham on Wednesday, but got back up off the mat instead of letting the loss tear them apart.

I've seen similar situations go in the opposite direction during my time around sports. So while the Hoosiers didn't solve all their problems on Saturday night, they did show progress against a decent opponent following a week of adversity, and that's a good thing.

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that they hadn't been good defensively," said Morehead State coach Sean Woods. "I knew they were going to be hungry. They were embarrassed at Duke. Watching them, they hadn't been very tough defensively. I thought they were much tougher tonight."

Also encouraging was the fact that Crean showed more of a willingness to pull his best players out for defensive mistakes. When James Blackmon Jr. allowed a Morehead State player to blow by him for an easy layup, Crean immediately pulled him from the game. It's important for Blackmon to realize there are consequences to his poor defense, regardless what he does on the other end of the floor.

Indiana's defense is not solely a Blackmon problem, but he's the worst offender (or DEfender, if you will). He has to get better, or he can't play as many minutes as he does. It's that simple.

Indiana seemed to simplify its overall defensive plan against Morehead State, and that needs to continue for the rest of the season. This team should play hard-nosed man-to-man all the time until it masters it to the point where it can be more creative without high levels of confusion. 

When I went back and watched the film from the Duke game, it was clear there was way too much thinking going on for the Hoosiers, and that cost them a number of baskets. Don't get me wrong: Effort has also been a big problem on the defensive end, but simplifying things on that end of the floor would probably really help this team. 

"You gotta have a lot of different things to be successful because there are a lot of different ways to play," Crean said. "It doesn't matter what defense you're in, you've got to communicate, you've gotta be aggressive in it, and you've got to have the ability to limit them to one shot. We just have to continue to improve in those aspects.

"I gotta get these guys going against each other more in practice, break the teams up a little bit so they have to continue to go best on best. As we've gotten into the preparations and things of that nature, we've probably gotten away from that a little bit."

The Hoosiers didn't solve all their problems on Saturday night, but they showed real progress toward fixing them. As one Indiana fan put it in a tweet to me:

"It's enough for me to take a step back from the cliff...for now."


Peegs.com Top Stories