Sacramento, Cal. – If Kelvin Sampson had a chance to replay the final possession of last week's Big Ten Tournament game against Illinois again, he knows what he'd do differently.
With Indiana in possession of the ball and the game tied with Illinois 50-50, the first-year Hoosier coach called a timeout and put the ball in the hands of freshman Armon Bassett for the potential game-winning shot. Bassett wound the game clock down before missing a 17-footer that would have made IU victorious. Instead, Illinois prevailed in overtime and punched its own NCAA tourney ticket with the win.
But Sampson is adamant that Bassett was the right player to take that shot.
"We put the ball in our best playmaker's hands, absolutely the right kid to take the shot," Sampson said Wednesday. "No question about it. If I had to do it again I wouldn't do a thing different because he was our best playmaker. He missed that shot."
While Sampson wasn't pleased with the win, he has been encouraged by the fact his team has been able to stay in games even when it doesn't shoot the ball well. The Hoosiers shot just 31.4 percent against the Illini, including 28.6 percent from behind the 3-point arc. That included a combined 2-of-17 shooting effort from starting guards Earl Calloway and Rod Wilmont.
"If we shot 31 percent in December we would have been beaten by 50," Sampson said. "But we learned to win games when we weren't playing well."
It's a new opponent for the Hoosiers, but D.J. White can expect to see much of the same Thursday night in Sacramento.
The Hoosiers' 6-9, 251-pound forward is still the team's one reliable inside presence, and he figures to once again draw plenty of defensive attention from Gonzaga. That means more often than not, when he gets the ball in the post he'll be greeted by a pair of Gonzaga players looking to make him give the ball back up.
With that in mind, Sampson says White's passing will be every bit as important as his point production.
"I think it's going to be important for him to be able to pass out of double teams tomorrow and get it to the right spots," Sampson said. "When we get doubled tomorrow, if he throws it back out to the guy that threw it in to him, that guy better be the right person. If not, we might get stuck in a shot clock situation."
When White finds the right person, it generally results in open looks from behind the 3-point arc for one of the team's prolific 3-point shooters. But when he doesn't, it can lead to either a bogged down offensive possession or, worse yet, a turnover and subsequent fastbreak opportunity for the opponent.
That's not something Indiana can afford against a Gonzaga team that 79.1 points per game this season.
"He has to do a good job of passing out of double teams and then being an opportunistic scorer," Sampson said.
RAIVIO LIKE NEITZEL?
The No. 1 defensive concern for IU figures to be Gonzaga shooting guard Derek Raivio, the Zags' leading scorer at 18.2/game. The 6-3 senior is also shooting 41.1 percent from behind the arc and recently was named the West Coast Conference Tournament MVP after averaging 21.0 points in the two games.
Containing him will likely fall to senior point guard Earl Calloway, IU's best perimeter defender who has gone up against a handful of elite guards in the Big Ten, including Michigan State's Drew Neitzel. Some have compared the Spartan standout to Gonzaga's senior, but Calloway says Raivio might actually prove to be a bigger challenge.
"He's going to get his shots – the main thing is contain him and limit his touches. He plays similar to Neitzel, but he's better off the dribble. We have to play good team defense. We're not focused on stopping one man. It's about playing team defense."
EARLY EXIT AN ADDED BONUS?
If there's a benefit from Indiana's Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal loss to Illinois, its that it had five days to rest before tomorrow night's NCAA tourney opener against Gonzaga.
While that might be the glass half full way of looking at the Hoosiers' quick exit, past experience tells Sampson there could be some merit to the theory.
"I've been on both sides of the fence on that," Sampson said. "At Oklahoma I remember winning three games in three days and our kids were drained. You're trying to weigh both. The elation of cutting the nets down and winning a championship doesn't seem like such a big deal when you lose your first round (NCAA Tournament) game. People forget that real quick."
Sampson would like to see a rule change that would give teams that win their conference tournament championships on Sunday a break, but he's also aware it's not likely to materialize.
"It's tough to recover from three games in three days," Sampson said. "I've always said that I wished the committee would adopt a rule if you win your conference championship and play three games in three days…put those teams, especially the first week of the tournament, and play them on Friday. But I don't think that will go."
Senior Rod Wilmont has given the Hoosiers more than 12.5 points and nearly six rebounds per game this season. He's also given them some personality.
Wilmont has always been a highly-emotional player, but now that he's a fifth-year senior it's his persona more than anyone else's that symbolizes Sampson's first IU team.
"Rod is an emotional kid," Sampson said. "Rod gives us a little bit of a swagger. He brings that to the game. Recently, when we were in Chicago playing Northwestern, just his bravado vs. maybe the Illinois game in Chicago in the Big Ten Tournament. We need that from Rod…for this team, and the way this team is made up, Rod's bravado and swagger (is important)."
Wilmont has had some huge games this year offensively, including his school-record nine 3-pointer performance in the win at Northwestern in the final week of the regular season. But he's also had a couple of clunkers as well, most recently his 1-of-10 effort against Illinois.
While Sampson knows shooters are going to have good nights and bad ones, he wants Wilmont to do a better job of not allowing his entire impact to be based on what he does shooting the ball.
"The thing I've had to consistently get on Rod about is don't make your game be tied to your made baskets," Sampson said. "When Rod isn't making baskets, he doesn't rebound either."
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