It was as ugly a college basketball game as you'll see all year, but unlike college football, there are no style points in basketball.
All wins count for the same, and Indiana earned a tough 59-58 victory over pesky Wisconsin at Assembly Hall on Tuesday night.
"It's not about how pretty it is, it's about how you perservere and win," Indiana coach Tom Crean said afterward. "That's exactly what we did."
Indiana honored its 1976 undefeated national championship team at halftime of Tuesday night's game, but the building was awfully quiet for much of the night. It wasn't just because of the final score or the tradional plodding style of Wisconsin. The basketball was sloppy on both sides, and the shooting was horrendous for Wisconsin.
Indiana had 19 turnovers in a game that featured only 4 total fastbreak points, and the Badgers shot just 41 percent from the field. It was an unusual game, one in which you didn't know whether Indiana should have been up 10 or down 20.
But the Hoosiers (13-3, 3-0 Big Ten) survived for their 8th consecutive win, thanks in large part to Yogi Ferrell's shot-making down the stretch. Ferrell scored 6 of his 19 points in the final minute of the game to keep the Badgers at bay.
"You don't want to disappoint on a night that's so important to so many people and a night that brings that memory," Crean said.
Freshman OG Anunoby was terrific for the third straight game, finishing with 11 points on 3-of-3 shooting off the bench. All three of Anunoby's attempts were from beyond the arc, making him a perfect 6-of-6 from distance in 3 conference games.
The only other significant stat line belonged to Thomas Bryant, who had 10 points and 7 rebounds, though he didn't score in the second half.
Robert Johnson (3 points, 5 turnovers) and Troy Williams (2 points, 7 rebounds) continued to struggle. Johnson had been Indiana's most consistent player in non-conference play and Williams was huge in Indiana's comeback win against Notre Dame, but both players have slumped since James Blackmon's injury prior to Big Ten play.
Johnson had only 19 turnovers in 12 non-conference games, and he already has 12 turnovers in the first three Big Ten games. He's also stopped making shots. Johnson is shooting just 2-of-14 in conference play for a total of 6 points in 3 games. Johnson made 39-of-70 (56 percent) of his shots from the field and 22-of-38 (58 percent) from beyond the arc during non-conference play. Those numbers have slipped to just 14 percent from the field and 25 percent from 3 in Big Ten play thus far.
Johnson figures to break out of that slump sooner rather than later. He's too good a player not to. But his recent numbers show just how important Anunoby's contributions have been. All three of IU's conference wins were close for much of the game. Had Anunoby not contributed 10 points per game out of the blue, where would the Hoosiers be?
"He's an excellent defender. That was for sure," Crean said. "His confidence is growing, you can see that with the way he's shooting the ball. He's getting more comfortable with it, but he's very smart, he's very athletic, he's very strong for his age, and he's fearless when it comes to defense. Our guys have got a lot of belief in him, and he knows that."
I've mentioned the scoring and the 3-pointers, but Crean is right, it starts with the defense for Anunoby. And more significant than Anunoby's 30 points in three games is the defensive mindset he's brought to a team that had no interest in guarding only a few weeks ago. Replacing Blackmon, one of the Big Ten's worst defenders, with Anunoby, the team's best defender, has paid huge dividends for the Hoosiers.
Anunoby entered Tuesday's game when Collin Hartman picked up two quick fouls, and he promptly swatted Nigel Hayes' turnaround attempt into the seats. Hayes finished just 3-of-13 from the field. When he's on the floor, the other team knows it. Anunoby and Juwan Morgan have drastically changed the way the Hoosiers play D, and make no mistake about it -- Indiana won Tuesday night's game on the defensive end.
"Coach got on us [about defense] before," Bryant said. "We get on each other now."
Indiana still has deficiencies on that end -- Troy Williams and Thomas Bryant still really struggle -- but the improvement Indiana has shown is enough to make a huge difference if the Hoosiers can continue to be as efficient offensively. That's the real question going forward. There's no doubt the Hoosiers are better defensively without Blackmon, but there's also no question that they're much better offensively with him.
Blackmon draws so much attention from the other team that he opens things up for everyone else. His absence makes guys like Ferrell and Johnson work much harder for their shots. There's simply not as much space out there without him.
Will the defensive improvement be enough to offset the loss in offensive production in the long term? That remains to be seen, but in the short term, it certainly has.