It wasn't pretty, but it might have been Indiana's most impressive win of the season.
The Hoosiers knock off Wisconsin in Assembly Hall behind 19 from Yogi Ferrell and 10 from freshman OG Anunoby. What did we learn?
1. Good lord you guys, Indiana won a game with defense.
Yes. It's real. It's really real. You did not hallucinate. Indiana held a Big Ten opponent to 41% shooting and under 60 points. Sure, Wisconsin's hardly the offensive juggernaut it might have been last season, but here's context -- Wisconsin scored 55 against Purdue just two games ago. Indiana held a KenPom Top 75 offensive team to less than 0.75 points per possession for the majority of the contest. That's something.
I wrote after the Nebraska game that James Blackmon's loss might dictate an identity change for Indiana. Indiana's glut of hot shooting guards can be basketball poetry to watch when things are clicking offensively, but cold-shooting streaks had all too often meant doom for Indiana. While Blackmon was undoubtedly a major loss for Indiana, it forced Tom Crean's hand into playing wing players that matchup better defensively with a more conventional 1-to-5 lineup. Add to that, Blackmon's absence creates a sudden lack of depth in the backcourt -- something that was a major necessity with Crean's previous run-and-gun, up-and-down style.
And, for as much crap as the man may catch about his tan and pants and hair and substitution patterns and general weirdness, credit where credit is due: Tom Crean recognized the need to modify Indiana's identity in response to Blackmon's loss -- at least for this game. Tonight, Indiana won a game in the half-court. The defensive half-court. It's too early to know if that's a trend that will continue, but it was certainly a welcome sight for Indiana fans that had clamored for all of 2015 about Indiana's defensive struggles. Tom Crean, as much as it might pain you, deserves some credit for that.
2. ...but it might be unsustainable if Indiana's turnovers & cold shooting continue.
All that said, one performance does not change a team's ethos. Indiana's ceiling is highest when they're able to connect from long-range at a high clip and, well, not give the ball to the other team. The Hoosiers turned the ball over 19 times while only shooting 48% from the field and only 42% from long range. It's encouraging that Indiana can find a way to win a game or two while relying on defense, but it would be foolish to think Crean's team can achieve success deep into March by magically mutating into a defense-first basketball team.
As impressive as OG Anunoby & others were in replacement of Blackmon on the defensive end, Indiana simply has yet to fully find a way to replace one of the best scorers in the Big Ten, if not the country. Outside of Ferrell & Anunoby's contributions, as well as Thomas Bryant's 10 points, here are the offensive contributions for Indiana basketball players from this evening:
- Nick Zeisloft - 5
- Collin Hartman - 4
- Rob Johnson - 3
- Troy Williams - 2
The last name on that list represents the most concerning trend for this Indiana basketball team. Williams has yet to register more than 10 points since Blackmon's departure at the start of Big Ten play and is turning the ball over at a rate of 26.6% per KenPom. That's not good! Williams, who has been Indiana's only consistent name showing up on draft boards, might see minutes fall if he fails to turn it his sluggish start around soon -- and Anunoby might be the benefactor. Indiana is a far better team with Williams on the floor if he's playing well, and the Hoosiers will need both down the stretch if a deep March run is the goal.
3. Indiana's alone atop the Big Ten standings... for now.
Here's a complete list of 3-0 teams in the Big Ten right now:
As dumb as it sounds, Indiana has opened the Big Ten season by following the Michigan State Football model of success: win conference games while impressing absolutely no one in the process. And for Indiana, right now, that's fine. The Hoosiers need time to adapt to deal with the departure of their second-leading scorer, time for freshman to grow, and need time to develop into consistent performers on the defensive end.
Conveniently, Tom Crean's team has a schedule that sets up in-conference just for such a period of adjustment. Indiana's schedule is more than manageable through the end of January, with KenPom giving the Hoosiers a 75% chance to win or better in five of the next six contests to close the month. The only place the Hoosiers are projected to lose? The return trip to the Kohl Center to play this Wisconsin team -- where KenPom pegs the Hoosiers as a 1-point underdog. It might not be likely at all considering the Hoosiers' struggles on both ends, but the favorable schedule sets it up to be a possibility that the Hoosiers could be 9-0, on a 14-game win streak, and squarely back in the Big Ten title hunt when they travel to Michigan on February 2nd.