Saturday December 19th, 2015

INDIANAPOLIS — After the final horn, Indiana players sprinted through a Bankers Life Fieldhouse tunnel before making a sharp left to the locker room. Freshman Thomas Bryant shouted to applauding fans. Shoulders were grabbed and shaken vigorously. Almost every one of the Hoosiers smiled the smile of someone who both knew they had gotten away with something, and who knew the good feelings were desperately needed.

Indiana wiped out a 16-point second-half deficit to post an 80–73 win over Notre Dame at the Crossroads Classic. It was the largest comeback win of the Tom Crean era and served as an immense morale boost for a team with three non-conference defeats already. It was, simultaneously, a you’re-going-to-feel-this-on-Selection-Sunday moment for the Irish. Here are three thoughts on the first game of a doubleheader between intrastate rivals:

Indiana found its defensive solution in the most unlikely of places

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The Hoosiers entered the game as the 108th-best defense in the country, per’s adjusted efficiency rankings. The issues didn’t seem to be effort-related; Crean’s crew appears to care enough on that end of the floor. It’s more that Indiana just doesn’t seem to be in the right place at the right time with any great frequency. Such was the case with Notre Dame shooting better than 60% well into the second half Saturday, abetted by hitting 14-of-23 shots from two-point range before intermission. One first half possession featured Notre Dame’s Steve Vasturia slicing into the lane … and finding no one there, with Indiana’s 7-foot freshman Thomas Bryant arriving exceptionally tardy for someone whose job it is to protect the rim.

So here’s how bad it got: Indiana went zone. A lot. Coming in, the Hoosiers had played zone in just 9.1% of its half-court defensive possessions, per Synergy Sports data. And they had allowed 1.041 points per possession in those scenarios, which ranked in the 19th percentile nationally, which is not very good at all.

“You don’t go into the game thinking you’re going to spend a lot of time zoning Notre Dame,” Crean said. “But you do have to have it ready.”

Indiana did, and it was. It dropped into the 2-3 zone after Notre Dame hit its first seven shots after halftime and Crean had had enough of his team arriving too late to double-team the post. This strategic shift disrupted the Irish’s flow immensely, with Notre Dame hitting missing 18 of 26 shots the rest of the way. “We figured out the rotations as the game went on and the longer we were in it,” Hoosiers forward Colin Hartman said. “We did a great job of talking and moving.”

Is this the answer for Indiana’s defensive woes? Commit to playing zone and using length and quickness to shut down lanes on the perimeter? Notre Dame coach Mike Brey called it a “great move” and noted that Indiana “covered a lot of looks” out of that 2-3. Chances are Crean won’t transform Bloomington into Syracuse South, but it has to be tempting. In the second half, the Hoosiers looked better defensively than they have all year.

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Another failure to close out a tight game damaged Notre Dame’s postseason resume some more

The Irish already had a two-point loss to Monmouth and a one-point loss to Alabama as the blemishes on their season. Even after the 16-point lead had vanished Saturday, they still had possession, down two, with about 40 seconds left … when Demetrius Jackson, the team’s leading scorer, lost the handle on the perimeter and turned it over. It is simply a mistake that the Irish’s best player cannot make. Yet in tight games, Notre Dame seems to keep making them, whoever has the ball in his hands.

“He wanted it so much for his team that he was almost over-wired,” Brey said of Jackson, who shot just 4-of-17 from the floor in what was likely his worst game of the season. But maybe it was smarter to focus on another number in Jackson’s line: 39 minutes played. And the 37 logged by Steve Vasturia, and the 35 for Bonzie Colson, and the 32 for V.J. Beachem. Brey has long relied on his starters to play extended minutes and kept his rotation short, especially in league play, but the collapse at the end once again raised the question of how much is too much for this group. Notre Dame is essentially 2-3 in tight games, having beaten Iowa by six and Illinois by five previously. The Indiana loss was a very bad one for a team with NCAA tournament hopes. So you wonder if getting out of a comfort zone with the starters and spreading the minutes around some will help produce more consistent results in decisive moments.

This is worth nothing if the Hoosiers don’t build on the good vibes

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It should be noted that Notre Dame ranked 129th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency coming in, so it was not like Indiana mounted a comeback against all logic and reason. But the context matters far less than the perception, at least inside the locker room. The defeats to Wake Forest, UNLV and Duke aren’t falling off the resume suddenly, but the comeback against Notre Dame can stanch some of the bleeding.

“Those are still Ls,” forward Troy Williams said, “but this is a step forward for the future.”

Crean lauded the energy of his team in the locker room before the game. He actually liked the irritation it felt at halftime against Notre Dame, trailing by 10 and not doing much of anything right. This was a club presumed to be a Big Ten contender who hadn’t looked like that, and yet if the Hoosiers’ coach is to be believed, it wasn’t affected by the creeping pressures associated with missed expectations. The comeback against the Irish underlined that; a team that is resigned to its lot can’t muster the resolve to manage such a climb. But if the Hoosiers backslide on that energy, or they get loose with those defensive rotations, or they stop talking on that end of the floor, or they don’t attack the glass as they did in grabbing 20 offensive rebounds Saturday…then this was a mirage. And making the NCAA tournament will still be a struggle.

“You can bottle it up and it becomes a part of who you are,” Crean said, “or you can forget about it and it becomes a one-game experience.”

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