COLUMN: Tom Crean uses unlikely lineup to spark Indiana's comeback win over Notre Dame

Just when things reached the proverbial tipping point for Tom Crean and Indiana, Crean tried something different, and was rewarded for it in a comeback win over Notre Dame.

INDIANAPOLIS --- For the better part of 28 minutes, the Indiana Hoosiers were who we thought they were. 

Nothing much had changed for the defense that was embarrassed in Maui and humiliated at Duke. Troy Williams falling. James Blackmon lazily reaching. Thomas Bryant fouling. Notre Dame scoring.

Not much had changed, either, with the carelessness and sometimes questionable shot selection on the offensive end. 

The problems in Maui were the problems on Saturday. No noticable improvement since then, only minimal lineup adjustments, and no reason to expect that to change.

But then, just when things reached the proverbial tipping point for Tom Crean and Indiana, things did change.  

Indiana trailed by 16 points in the second half, and the Hoosier faithful inside Bankers Life Fieldhouse let Crean and the Hoosiers hear their displeasure in the form of boos on multiple occassions. 

"We let our lack of offense dictate our mindset too much in the first half," Crean said afterward. "That can't be. Can't have that."

But before you knew it, the Hoosiers (9-3) were inching their way back. And when Indiana tied it at 71-71 with 4:13 remaining on a Yogi Ferrell 3-pointer, the Hoosiers were riding an unusual -- and highly unexpected -- lineup.

  • Ferrell
  • Nick Zeisloft
  • Williams
  • Max Bielfeldt
  • O.G. Anunoby

Absent from that lineup were three starters, including two McDonalds All-Americans -- James Blackmon, Thomas Bryant and Robert Johnson. When those three checked out, Indiana trailed by eight points. Less than three minutes later, the game was tied.

Many in the media and on Twitter were quick to credit Indiana's zone defense, which looked like a 1-3-1 but Crean called "more of a 2-3". I don't think it was the zone. That's the same zone that was atrocious against Duke. 

No, I think it was more about the confidence and effort of the guys playing the zone than the zone itself. Crean went with a lineup of guys who make up for in effort what they lack in talent, and that play for the team and not for themselves. 

"Switching defenses and all those kinds of things, they're only as good as the players make it," Crean said.

I tweeted during the second half that Crean needed to bench Blackmon and Williams for their horrendous defense. Williams ended up being one of Indiana's most important players -- he had 18 points and 10 rebounds, including 16 points in the second half -- but Crean finally showed a willingness to sit Blackmon for a long, critical stretch.

The results speak volumes. 

"Very proud of the contributions, very proud of the comeback," Crean said. "That's how you get better, you learn how to get better inside of the game. And it usually comes the old-fashioned way -- on the defensive end, with the rebounding. ... The way they won it in the second half, I hope they can continue to build off. That becomes a personal responsibility that each person remember how they did it."

Anunoby was the least likely of the heroes, but when his team needed him, he delivered. The raw freshman had only two points and four rebounds, but he brought the energy and passion the Hoosiers were missing. His putback layup cut Notre Dame's lead to 71-66 with 5:37 left, a play that brought Bankers Life Fieldhouse to a near-deafening noise level.

Only 84 seconds later, the game was tied.

Troy Williams opened his postgame press conference, unprompted, by talking about Anunoby, and he didn't stop.

"That really sparked the game," Williams said of Anunoby's rebound putback. "I mean, I think we got like three shots. I think I missed two shots on that possession too. O.G. grabbed the rebound, went right back up and dunked it, and that just sparked us. That should be the play of the game right there."

Indiana desperately needed those minutes from Anunoby because Bryant was struggling. Bryant plays with so much emotion, which is usually a good thing, but in this case, it was not. Bryant's emotion seemed to get the best of him at times in the second half, and the televsion cameras caught him yelling at his teammates during a timeout.

Bryant wanted to succeed so badly that his frustration began to eat at him as things continually went against him. 

He's young, though, and he'll learn how to better manage that emotion as time goes on. The bigger takeaway is when one player struggled, another stepped in and filled the void. That hadn't happened this season.

"That's been coming," Crean said of Anunoby's play. "It's just a matter of understanding how good he can be, learning more, not thinking as much, which all freshman go through. Thomas is going through the same thing. And we knew we were going to have to have him ready because we were really banged up this week. Really banged up. And I'm really proud of the guys that responded to their situations."

If Indiana goes on to have a successful season, we'll look back at this win as a turning point. But I thought last year's Crossroads Classic win over Butler would be one, too, and there were many peaks and valleys after that.

So instead of saying it's a potential turning point or season saver, I'll call it what it is: A huge resume-building win over a very good, in-state team. Whether it becomes anything more than that, well, that's for the Hoosiers to decide.


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