After a rough, hard-fought first half, Indiana exploded in the second half, and a game that felt like it would go down to the wire suddenly became a comfortable win for IU. Above all, this game was a relief. Butler isn't as strong a team as it was last year, let alone in 2009-10, and the Bulldogs have lost three legendary players over the last two years, so some rebuilding seems to be inevitable. On the other hand, Butler won 10 NCAA Tournament games over the last two seasons despite having less talent than most of the teams they beat. Butler is an extremely well-coached team and this was a dangerous game. A win at home over Butler doesn't prove all that much, but a loss would have led to a feeling of same old, same old, and would have led to a media feeding frenzy (even after the win, hacks like Jeff Goodman of CBS have exaggerated the precariousness of Tom Crean's position at IU and with the fans). In other words, this is an important win because it means we didn't lose.
As for the game itself, the first half was a slugfest, with lots of turnovers and not much by way of shooting. IU missed a number of bunnies (I'm looking at you, Christian Watford), some because of Butler's defense and some because of just bad luck. I thought that in the first half, it was apparent that IU wasn't used to playing against a team with any ability to match them physically. That's not to say that Butler and IU have comparable talent--they don't--but Butler was a big step up in talent and preparation from IU's other opponents, and I thought it took a while for IU players to realize that some of the stuff that worked earlier wasn't going to work today. Again, however, as much as IU struggled against Butler's defense early on, the Bulldogs were stymied as well. Butler has struggled to score all season, but the most impressive number for the IU defense is the Bulldogs' turnover total. Butler turned the ball over 21 times, or on 33 percent of its possessions. That percentage number is Butler's worst single game total since a loss to Wisconsin-Milwaukee in January 2004. Certainly, part of that is the loss of Shelvin Mack, but taking care of the ball has long been a Butler trademark, and IU made the Bulldogs look very sloppy. Forcing turnovers is quickly becoming a point of strength for this team. IU now ranks #19 nationally with a defensive turnover percentage of 27 percent.
As it stood, IU shot only 11-34 from two point range for the game, including 3-15 in the first half. IU continued to excel from behind the arc, shooting 5-10 in the first half and 8-13 for the game. IU got to the line and shot well there, 29-36. There certainly are plenty of concerns with this team, but if we can continue to turn teams over, get to the line, and shoot well from outside, we will win some games.
- Will Sheehey continued to excel, scoring a team-high 21 points on 5-8 from the field and 8-10 from the line. I have said it many times this year, but for all the accolades for the 2009, 2011, and 2012 classes, picking up the relatively unheralded Sheehey and Victor Oladipo in 2010 may be a key to this turnaround.
- Oladipo struggled to finish near the basket, but still ended up with 10 points thanks to 5-6 from the line. He also had two steals.
- Cody Zeller had a steady game. He had his "worst" shooting performance at 4-9 from the field, but finished with 16 points, 8 boards, 8-10 from the line, 3 steals, 2 blocks, and only 2 fouls in 33 minutes.
- Christian Watford really struggled: 2-10, only 2 boards, and an uncharacteristic 2-4 from the line.
- Jordan Hulls played a nice game as well, finishing with 14 points on 5-9/2-3.
IU now stands at 6-0, which is all that can be expected at this point, of course. Before the season, I saw five loseable games on the non-conference schedule: at Evansville, Butler, at NC State, Kentucky, and Notre Dame. IU is now 2-0 against that slate with a 21 point win and a 16 point win. The NC State game now seems like the true test of the pre-conference. Kentucky is at this point a dominant team, and although IU has risen to #20 in the Pomeroy ratings, Pom gives IU only a 24 percent chance of winning at home. Notre Dame recently lost its best player, Tim Abromitis, to a season-ending knee injury, and ND didn't have much margin for error to begin with. Still, there's no need to dwell on the future today. This was a nice and important win for the program, and we are in very good shape for this season and next.