Will Sheehey helped with the defensive charge that enabled Indiana to limit Iowa to 14 points in the first half Saturday.
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (WDRB) – The latest indication of the respect Tom Crean has generated in putting the Indiana University basketball program back together in one thriving piece won't be found on the scoreboard.
It wasn't in the 73-60 defeat that Indiana hung on Iowa Saturday night, a performance more grinding than glorious that pushed the Hoosiers within one victory of winning at least a share of their first Big Ten Conference title in 11 years.
No, the latest sign came in the locker room after the game. After Crean addressed his players so did a special visitor – former Hoosier Quinn Buckner, the captain of Indiana's unbeaten 1976 NCAA championship team, the last group to finish a college season without a single slip.
This was Buckner's first game back in Assembly Hall as purely a spectator in the 13 seasons since his IU coach, Bob Knight, left the program. He wanted to watch this team with his daughter, an IU senior. His son, Jason, an IU grad, joined them.
Buckner's stature in the early days of the Knight Era was as significant as what Cody Zeller has been to the Crean Era – a leader, winner and admired national recruit who made it cool to sign with Indiana.
Buckner's message to Crean's players was as simple as the way he played the game:
Keep working hard in practice as well as games. There are no shortcuts to success. Don't take any plays off. The good stuff is ahead. Go after it.
Indiana (25-4) went after it against the persistent Hawkeyes – and did it in a way that Buckner and Tom Abernethy, another member of that 1976 championship team who attended the game, had to appreciate:
By squeezing Iowa on every cut, wiggle, slash, twist, fake and shot. Bodies bounced across the floor in fearless pursuit of loose balls.
The Hawkeyes scored 14 points in the first half. Just seven baskets. During six different first-half stretches, Iowa endured three consecutive possessions without scoring.
"These guys really understand that the biggest thing is they can't win without (defense)," Crean said. "It leads to more opportunities offensively, when creating turnovers, when you're getting rebounds, when you're getting those stops put together.
"At the same time, it's cutting into the fatigue of the other team – and their confidence level."
By game's end, Iowa took 13 three-point shots. They made one. They threw the ball away 19 times. No way the Hawkeyes were going to approach the 89 points they scored in Assembly Hall a year ago. Not close.
"Tremendous defense," Abernethy said. "Just very tough and physical."
Yes, they were. Make a note of this: Nobody was calling Indiana's defense tremendous or just very tough and physical last season. No, people were calling Indiana's defense the Number One thing Crean needed to improve, especially on the defensive backboard.
And he has.
Defense has been the biggest growth in Crean's team. It doesn't mean they'll go deeper in the NCAA Tournament than they did last season. It doesn't mean the Hoosiers don't have things to improve.
What it means, though, is that on a night when Indiana did not make a three-point shot for 39 minutes and the Hoosiers did not get a single basket from seniors Christian Watford or Jordan Hulls (combined 0 for 15), Indiana controlled the Hawkeyes for 40 minutes, becoming only the second Big Ten team to beat Iowa by double figures this season.
"Our defense really gets us going," said Zeller, who lead Indiana with 22 points and 10 rebounds. "Our defense can be consistent whether our shots are falling or not. It obviously looks a lot better if we are scoring, but like you said, we can win if it's a low-scoring game just because our defense is playing well."
Indiana is now 13-3 in the Big Ten, ahead of Michigan State and Wisconsin, who are 11-4 with games Sunday. A year ago the Hoosiers were 9-7 after 16 league games.
The difference is defense. Last season Big Ten teams shot 45.8 percent against Indiana. The number this season is 40.2. Opponents averaged 71.6 points last season. The number this season is 63.8. Defense matters to this team. Crean made certain of that.
"That's why I love the maturity of this group right now," Crean said. "Even when the shots aren't falling, they're continuing to play at a very high level. It just says a lot about this group of guys that they really do understand what wins games. "
Guys who won big at Indiana, like Quinn Buckner and Tom Abernethy, saw that Saturday night.