Tipoff: Indiana vs. Notre Dame, Crossroads Classic, Indianapolis, 3:15 p.m. Saturday
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BLOOMINGTON – Luke Fischer is done with the brace. He just is. The sprained left shoulder -- actually a torn labrum -- has healed. Indiana's freshman center is starting to show what the hype was all about.
For now it comes in measured doses. With fellow freshman Noah Vonleh dominating time with his double-double efficiency, Fischer has an off-the-bench role.
The good news: That role is expanding.
On Tuesday night against Oakland, Fischer played a season-high 14 minutes. He totaled six points (on 3-for-4 shooting) and six rebounds. He was a big part of the Hoosiers' 81-54 victory.
That's solid stuff for a guy who entered the game with a total of 19 points and 18 rebounds.
“I've been a lot more comfortable since that shoulder brace came off,” he said. “It's been a lot better, more movement. It just feels like back to my old self.”
That old self left him with comparisons -- which weren't always fair -- to former IU All-America Cody Zeller, now a NBA rookie in Charlotte. But the injury had cost him the ability to prove it.
Proof is coming. Last Saturday against North Florida he scored six points on 3-for-6 shooting. He added three rebounds. He moved better, banged inside more consistently. He looked more like the guy rated as the nation's No. 4 center for this freshman class, a guy whose Germantown (Wis.) High School team had gone 56-0 with consecutive state titles in his last two seasons.
He'll get a nationally televised chance to prove it even more during Saturday's Crossroads Classic game with Notre Dame.
“The brace really restricted how high I could raise my arm because that was the main problem with it. Now I have full movement and I'm not afraid to re-hurt it anymore.”
Fischer was a big reason for IU's 52-28 rebound dominance. That's a good sign given the Hoosiers were rebounding well even when he barely played. They entered the game leading the nation in rebound margin, at plus-15.
Better rebounding remains a seasonlong priority for coach Tom Crean, who sees it as a way to offset mediocre shooting.
“These guys think I'm crazy when I talk about we can get so much better at rebounding with the way our rebounding numbers are,” Crean said. “But we're going to need that, and more, on Saturday to beat one of the more experienced teams in the country like Notre Dame.”
So Crean lets his players know it.
“We still get yelled at in practice for not being good enough at rebounding,” Fischer said, “but that just makes us strive to be even better at it.”
Crean yells to accelerate the growth rate of a team dominated by freshmen and sophomores. Rebounding is one key. Defense is another.
IU will soon unleash more full-court pressure. Crean wants to make sure the players get all the defensive nuances -- can you say switching? -- before adding more elements.
“We're going to get so much better with defense as time goes on,” he said. “There are a lot of things for us to add defensively that will bring pressure to the game, but we're really trying to get our true non-negotiables in. That when we switch, we switch with purpose – not passively, but aggressively.”
IU offered a glimpse of the possibilities with the way it turned Oakland guard Travis Bader's shooting-prowess reputation into a myth. He entered the game with 40 three-point baskets, second-most in the country, along with a 62-game streak of at least one three-pointer.
He left with zero.
Bader went 0-for-10 against IU's switching defense that saw Hoosiers such as Will Sheehey, Troy Williams, Yogi Ferrell and Evan Gordon take turns on him.
“We knew he was like the best three-point shooter in the country,” Gordon said. “With a shooter like that, we've just got to make sure we limit his touches and make sure he doesn't get a clean look when he comes off screens.”
“It was fantastic to hold the best three-point shooter in the country to zero threes,” Fischer said. “That's hard to do. That was our whole game plan and we executed it perfectly.”
Oakland coach Greg Kampe wasn't so sure.
“Bader gets guarded like that every night. I don't think it was something they did. He just missed a lot of open shots. I think he just had an off night.”
Whether it's off night or powerhouse defense, IU's overall objective is the same – become a Big Ten factor.
With Fischer in the mix, it gets a lot easier.