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INDIANAPOLIS – Indiana wasted a big opportunity.
That's a shame.
The Hoosiers went 0-for-3 in their non-conference chances to prove their Big Ten worthiness. Saturday's 79-72 Crossroads Classic loss to Notre Dame hurt the most because so much was possible. They faced a vulnerable opponent (did you see the North Dakota loss?) in a neutral Bankers Life Fieldhouse setting that had a strong Cream 'n Crimson feel.
They battled back from a sluggish start with tough-minded play. Senior Will Sheehey overcame a couple weeks worth of offensive struggles for a career-high-tying 22 points. Senior Evan Gordon was again a double-figure-scoring presence off the bench (52 points in his last three games).
They had chance after chance to make a game-changing crunch-time play in a Big Ten-caliber environment and couldn't get it done.
In truth, the veteran Irish (8-3) were most responsible for that. They were desperate for a victory and it showed.
Indiana, well, not so much.
IU (8-3) lost in its two other Big Ten-caliber games against No. 9 Connecticut and No. 2 Syracuse. Connecticut was winnable. Syracuse was not. That indicates the potential of a youthful group in which two freshmen start and six play compared to two seniors, one of which (Gordon) is in his first year in the program as a fifth-year transfer.
As for the Washington victory, well, the Huskies (5-4) are a mediocre Pac-12 team going no where in the postseason.
Youth is another way of saying IU isn't ready. Not yet. One day, you figure, it will kick be, although whether that's in a month or two or next season is anybody's guess.
“With a young team like this it will be a daily process of them really improving,” coach Tom Crean said. “We believe we have a great program for improving and skill development. The mental part we have to grow through that. There are not a lot of drills you can give a guy to get the experience and understanding he has to have of how important every possession is.”
That understanding is unlikely to come from upcoming patsies Nicholls State (2-4) and Kennesaw State (3-7), which will come to Assembly Hall next weekend and get buried in atmospheres that won't come close to duplicating what IU will face in Big Ten play.
Still, the Notre Dame loss won't be a negative if the Hoosiers learn, particularly the freshmen.
“I'd have liked to have done more substituting for fatigue rather than substituting because the lights were too bright,” Crean said. “It's to be expected with a young team. I'm not condoning it. I'm not rationalizing it. We still made some big plays. We brought fatigue to the game for a while, but then they made some shots and we didn't make enough to get over the hump.
“We played guys a lot of minutes because for some guys it was just a little bit too bright for them to really step up to the task.”
Whom did he mean?
Well, freshman Troy Williams played just 12 minutes and totaled no points, three rebounds and two assists. Freshman Noah Vonleh had eight points and six rebounds in 21 minutes, but he was burned repeatedly on defense in the post, and wasn't enough of an inside offensive presence.
That lack of inside offense was among the reasons why IU took more three-pointers (20) than free throws (16), which is not what Crean wants given the Hoosiers shoot 72.2 percent from the line and just 30.6 percent beyond the arc.
“We're not demanding the ball inside -- not demanding it verbally or physically the way we need to,” Crean said. “We have to be better.”
The Hoosiers cannot shoot their way to victory the way last year's top-ranked team did, and everybody knows it. They have to win with rebounding, defense, pace and attack-the-rim ferocity.
“We won't be a successful team if we shoot a lot of jump shots,” Crean said. “We're not successful if we don't get into the lane, if we don't shoot a lot of free throws, if we're not in the bonus early enough.”
The players know this. They wanted to get inside -- there was no way to miss Crean's sideline commands -- but Notre Dame refused to let that happen.
“Coach was stressing to throw it in there,” Gordon said. “I know for a fact I didn't see a lot of looks down there. Notre Dame played great post defense. We couldn't get it inside.”
The Hoosiers will do what they want against Nicholls State and Kennesaw State. They will open Big Ten play with a 10-3 record that could have -- perhaps should have -- been at least one victory better.
Then they'll face Big Ten lights and we'll see if they're too bright or just right.