BLOOMINGTON, Ind. --- It's no secret that Indiana's schedule will continue to get tougher. That's not he fault of head coach Tom Crean or any program administrator.
Yet late Thursday night after IU's win over Iowa, he was asked if that victory validated his team's play to this point.
"I get a kick out of that," Crean said. "We didn't pick our schedule. We got the schedule the computer gave us."
The latest challenge of that backloaded schedule delivered by the computer resulted in Indiana coming out on top with a 85-78 win over the No. 4 Hawkeyes at Assembly Hall.
Indiana (20-5, 10-2 Big Ten) matched both its overall and conference win totals from last season and guaranteed a fourth season of at least 20 victories for Crean. It also means there's a three-way tie for first place in the Big Ten standings between it, Iowa (19-5, 10-2) and Maryland.
Though senior point guard Yogi Ferrell led the way with a team-high 14 points, he struggled to shoot the ball for most of the game. He finished 2 of 12 from the field, making just a pair of three pointers. The majority of his points came from aggressively attacking the basket and drawing fouls en route to a perfect 8 for 8 from the free throw line.
With Ferrell struggling and freshman center Thomas Bryant saddled with foul trouble - he picked up his fourth with 9:35 left in the second half - Indiana relied heavily on production from its bench.
Those players answered the call and accounted for 28 of the Hoosiers' 85 points. While senior forward Jarrod Uthoff paced Iowa with 24 points as he and the Hawkeyes' other four starters finished in double figures, they didn't get much help from the bench - zero points to be exact.
Fifth-year players Nick Zeisloft and Max Bielfeldt collectively scored 19 of the 28 bench points. Sophomore guard Robert Johnson, who had struggled with his shot early in Big Ten play, stepped up with 13 points on 4 of 6 shooting from the field with three 3-pointers.
"A couple of my shots didn't go in, but guys like Nick, Rob, they were making shots from the outside," Ferrell said. "The great thing we just needed to do more of, I felt like this game, was just needed to do more of, I felt like this game, was move the ball especially, move them, move bodies, not have the ball stick so much. But I felt like we played through adversity, playing great defense and we just found a way to win."
A seven-point Indiana halftime lead quickly disappeared as it took Iowa four minutes and 40 seconds to tie the game. Teams continued to trade baskets down the stretch until a critical play late in the game.
Iowa senior point guard Mike Gesell's two free throws with 22 seconds left made it a one-possession game. On the ensuing Indiana inbounds pass, the Hawkeyes brought full court pressure. Whereas earlier the Hoosiers had made mistakes against that pressure, they broke through it. Junior forward Troy Williams found fellow junior forward Collin Hartman cutting to the basket, and Hartman finished with an emphatic one-handed slam.
Williams had two turnovers in the first 2:07 of the game, but redeemed himself with a late old-fashioned 3-point play and that assist to Hartman. He finished with 13 points and seven rebounds, while Hartman finished with seven points and seven rebounds.
"Troy was like lazarus," Crean said. "He redeemed himself a couple of times in this game, right? ... We wouldn't win these games without his activity, without the plays that he makes."
Equally important was the valuable minutes off the bench by walk-on freshman point guard Harrison Niego. Offensively, he had only two points, but he made his greatest impact on defense.
His lone steal of the game, with Indiana up by just one, gave it slight breathing room and led to a layup by Bielfeldt. Niego also drew a charge late in the game.
"He's a tough, young guy," Crean said, referring to Niego. "And he's got to play more, I mean, it's been me, not him. It's just been playing those other guys more."
"The fans were electric," Niego added. "When they get behind us and we get rolling, it's a lot of fun to play. And it's definitely a big reason why I decided to come here."
With his play, Niego should have plenty more opportunities against challenging competition.
"It only gets easier," Crean deadpanned. "Now we get to go to East Lansing."
Indiana has faced adversity before - namely tonight in facing a top-five opponent following a disappointing loss at Penn State - and will no doubt be prepared.
"When things get bad, you can either fall off and crumble or you can rise to the occasion," Hartman said. "I think that we've done a really good job of rising to the occasion when adversity hits."