It wasn’t pretty, nor was it particularly comfortable the whole time, but Indiana is 1-0 on the new season with a 69-63 win over Florida Gulf Coast. Not every Big Ten team was so lucky this week.
Trailing 48-42 with just over 10 minutes to play in the second half, the Hoosiers went on a 14-0 run to reclaim the lead and control of the game. The Eagles made it close again with a flurry of threes in the final minute, but Indiana held tough and made enough free throws down the stretch to escape with a win.
However fun it is to poke fun at the Michigan States and Rutgers of the world, I watched Pat Chambers beat a far more experienced team with a full court press in Assembly Hall, so I’m not taking this lightly. Indiana has lost that game so many times in the last decade or so.
With so many new faces and so much uncertainty heading into this year, all you can really ask for in these early season games is a win. Indiana did that today and now we can hope for them to look better next game.
Here’s Three Things we learned:
Woof. This one almost cost Indiana tonight with Florida Gulf Coast going 13-24 from deep and consistently finding open looks, even with the game on the line.
For a while, it seemed like the problem was compounding itself; the Eagles would hit a big three and somebody on Indiana would go for the steal and momentum-shifting fast break, only to leave another wide open look from three.
Mike Woodson seemed to reel them in with a timeout near the halfway point of the second half, which was good to see. Had he not been able to calm things down, tonight could have gotten ugly.
For as much slack as I’m willing to cut the offense (more on that later), I was hoping to see a little more from the perimeter defense. Woodson had emphasized defensive rotations after both exhibitions, so I think the expectation was that they’d be crisper on that front.
On the other hand, perimeter defense relies on a lot of communication or chemistry, which tend to be the first thing you lose when you play with weird lineups. Indiana did a lot of that tonight and the perimeter defense may have just been a reflection of that.
The reason that I’m not panicking about the perimeter defense or the sometimes stagnant offense was that this was essentially a glorified exhibition game and it looked like Mike Woodson treated it as such.
That’s not to say that he wasn’t coaching to win. I just don’t think we’ll see a lot of those lineups again this season. It could be uncomfortable again in the future, but given the lack of experience at most positions this year, treating these games as exhibitions seems like a perfectly reasonable approach.
Mike Woodson is going to need some of these guys to step up for him later this season. This is why I was particularly interested in the rotations coming into the game today. It’s better to know now who he can count on when the competition gets stiffer.
Today, it was Gabe Cupps. The freshman point guard came off the bench to give Indiana a huge boost on defense, then hit an even bigger 3-pointer to bring Assembly Hall to its feet and give Indiana a more comfortable lead.
Significantly, Woodson went with a three guard lineup of Cupps, Trey Galloway, Xavier Johnson, Kel’el Ware, and Malik Reneau when he needed to regain control of the game. This is a smaller lineup than most expected from Indiana this year, so it may be something to keep an eye on.
I do not think we have to worry much about Kel’el Ware’s “effort level” after today’s performance.
Ware looked like the best player on the court tonight, finishing with 13 points, 12 rebounds four assists, and three blocks. He would have had more blocks, but Florida Gulf Coast wisely stopped challenging him in the paint in the second half.
Perhaps most importantly, he tied with Trey Galloway for the most 3-point attempts tonight, knocking one down in the first half to establish his range early. This is simply not a weapon Indiana has had before.
For all the things that Trayce Jackson-Davis was great at, perimeter scoring was not one of them. Ware, on the other hand, can drag a defender out to the arc and beyond when he handles the ball, which allows him to initiate up top and find other guys on the perimeter, like when he kicked it out to Mackenzie Mgbako for a long two today.
He’ll need other guys around him to knock down more shots than they did today, but Ware demonstrated tonight that this will be a new look Indiana team with his skillset and size in the lineup.