Back in November, few would have looked at an early-February game against Penn State as a potential must-win game for the Indiana Hoosiers.
However, a myriad of injuries have left the Hoosiers with a roster depleted and their hopes sinking. A loss on Wednesday would have left Indiana at 4-6 in the Big Ten and outside of the tournament looking in.
Given the context, it’s no hyperbole to say Thomas Bryant’s 31-point, 11-rebound game was both his best game as a Hoosier and saved the season for Indiana.
It was no secret early on that Bryant was going to be the focal point of the Hoosiers’ offense and he was engaged from the onset Wednesday. The surest sign of what type of game the Hoosiers will get from Bryant is just how effective he is defensively, and this play was a microcosm of the effort displayed from Bryant throughout.
More importantly than being engaged, though, is whether or not Bryant plays under control. Love him or not, the passion he shows is both one of his biggest strengths while often being his greatest weakness.
Bryant’s tendency to get excited and sped up is oft-seen, especially at home where he feeds off the fans. However, on Wednesday, Bryant was able to harness the energy make the right play instead of the big play.
In the post is where Bryant dominated much of the night. Bryant’s post game has never been in doubt, but he continually made the right read while staying patient and under control (I’m going to use that phrase a lot) to get some of his buckets.
The only thing that slowed down Thomas Bryant on the night was De’Ron Davis, and through no fault of Davis’ own, which leads to a brief reprieve.
A common critique of Tom Crean this season is his unwillingness to use both Bryant and Davis together on the court in some sort of Twin Towers offense.
The counterpoint to that is simple: Crean’s offense doesn’t allow for there to be two post players on the court at once. It’s a motion/weave offense more often than not where most of the action takes place on the perimeter.
When you throw Davis and Bryant out there together, you often get situations like this.
With the game on the line, Crean went to the Bryant-Davis front court. Madness ensued and you can see Bryant 30-feet from the basket and Davis posting up 20-feet from the basket. Luckily, the Hoosiers were bailed out by a foul.
In an ideal world, you get an offense that looks something more like this with some high/low action in the post.
Here, Bryant is working on the low block while Davis is set up at the free throw line. This type of action could work in theory, but again, it’s not natural in Crean’s offense. Maybe Bryant comes back next season and it’s something installed over the summer. Probably not, but you can’t rule it out I suppose.
But going forward this year, Bryant and Davis need to be treated like A.J. Hammons and Isaac Haas were last year for Purdue in which they rotated for one another and saw very little time on the floor together.
But back to Bryant.
After the Hoosiers survived the first overtime on a shot from Newkirk that might or might not have been on his fingertips when the clock hit zero, Bryant took over in the second overtime in what was accurately described as “his moment” after the game.
After a very weird turnover by Penn State, Bryant started off his eight-point second overtime with an easy dunk. Again, notice the patience of waiting for the defender to fly by.
Bryant’s biggest play of the night came shortly after. Using a spin move that was effective seemingly all night, Bryant took was his defender gave him and turned it into an and-one opportunity.
Bryant followed up his strong start to the overtime offensively with one of the best plays he’s made all year defensively, thwarting a Penn State fastbreak with perfect verticality, something he struggles to do on a consistent basis.
For reasons I don’t know, at this point the Hoosiers weren’t making post touches for Bryant a priority at this point in the second overtime, but staying active and involved led to Bryant bailing out Indiana very late in the shot clock.
And finally, for his final two points of the night, Bryant had by far his most patient, calculated opportunity in the post. Despite already having 29 points late in the second overtime with the fans roaring, Bryant took a long pass and did not rush anything.
Realizing he was already in great post position very early in the shot clock, Bryant stayed under control, slowly backed down an overmatched defender before getting a high-percentage shot at the rim.
Of all the baskets and plays Bryant had on the night, this was maybe the smartest and most impressive one.
Bryant finished the night with 44 minutes played and used 29 percent of the possessions in the game, the latter being the highest on the team. His 31 points were a team-high, as were his 11 rebounds.
I’m not a big fan of talking about how much college players need to or have matured, but it appears Bryant may have done a bit of that. In general, Indiana looked like a team last night (at least offensively) that realized the dire situation they were in and how important the game was.
Going forward without James Blackmon Jr., however long or short that may be, this is the type of effort that is mandatory from Bryant for the Hoosiers to have any chance of remaining competitive. The 31 points are likely not going to be replicated, but you can replicate the focus and engagement level, and he’ll have to if the Hoosiers want their NCAA hopes to stay alive.