MINNEAPOLIS (WDRB) — Tom Crean pointed to a number of small things that added up to a 66-60 loss at Minnesota on Saturday in a game the Hoosiers seemed to control in the first half before Minnesota got a more up-tempo pace in the second.
He talked about some little lapses that made for easy baskets at the end of Minnesota possessions in the second half. The 11 second-half turnovers. Too much driving into crowds of defenders on the dribble instead of drawing defensive attention and making the easy pass for an open shot.
"We had some turnovers in the second half, and we had some awareness issues at the end of possessions," Crean said. "In this league, it's not a possession-by-possession league, it's pass-by-pass league. And that's why it's the best league in the country. You've got to be locked into every pass. There were a couple of times, it wasn't for lack of fight or try, we just weren't aware and they got a couple of baskets out of mistakes."
Crean, of course, is right. Troy Williams turns it over trying to make a move with 15 seconds left in the first half and Minnesota goes to the locker room down six instead of eight or ten. He turns it over again on IU's first possession of the second half, and the Gophers are down only four, and within three minutes the game is tied.
But there is a larger issue if you step back and look at the numbers for the Hoosiers.
Williams scored the first nine points of the game for IU. He scored on a jumper, two free throws, a three-pointer and a put-back dunk, showing his aggressiveness and versatility. After that, he scored only two more points the rest of the game, and attempted only three more field goals. Noah Vonleh made five of nine shots and finished with 12 points, 12 rebounds.
Those two players accounted for 41 percent of IU's field goals, but took only 30 percent of the team's shots. Together they were 9 of 15. The rest of IU's team was 13 of 35.
IU, as a team, isn't far off. The Hoosiers are clearly improving. As Crean says, they miss rotations and don't guard every screen perfectly, but they're a top-20 team in the nation in defensive efficiency, according to Ken Pomeroy, and in their past four losses, they've given up just 54, 71, 60 and 66 points.
You can't go so far as to say that defense isn't a problem for this team, but it isn't its biggest problem.
So if the team needs a bit more offensive efficiency, it may be as easy as looking more to Vonleh and Williams and less to others who are taking more shots. It's easier to say things than to do them, of course, but on the season, those two take roughly 23 percent of the team's shots (accounting for 25 percent of the team's points). But they also both shoot better than 50 percent from two-point range. If they can get more shots, it probably puts the Hoosiers in a better position to win.
If there's an offensive answer for the Hoosiers, it may be less in the three-point shooting of Yogi Ferrell than in the continued development of those young inside options. Ferrell led the Hoosiers with 14 points and Will Sheehey added 11, but they needed 26 shots for their 25 points (compared with just 15 shots for Vonleh and Williams to reach the same total).
Contrast that with Minnesota, which beat Indiana precisely by concentrating its offense in the paint. The Gophers outscored IU 40-26 in the paint (they also outscored the Hoosiers 24-12 off the bench and 20-12 off turnovers. IU won the second-chance points 18-9.)
But in a game where all other things were virtually equal, Minnesota won because it pounded down low for four more two-point field goals than Indiana (it also managed eight more shots, thanks in large part to IU's 16 turnovers.)
Maurice Walker was the main part of that. The 6-10, 250-pound junior missed the season's first six games, and scored in double digits only twice in his first 11 games. Then he had 18 points, on 6-for-11 shooting, in a win over Wisconsin, not coincidentally, a game where Minnesota's top-scoring guard, Andre Hollins, was sidelined by injury.
Without Hollins, Minnesota had no choice but to look inside to Walker, who has responded by scoring 14.2 points per game since that time, shooting 60 percent from the field (30 of 50). He had 14 against the Hoosiers, and was 7-11 from the field.
"Mo is settling in to be one of the tougher guys to guard on the block in this conference," Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said. "He's a tough out, he really is. He's just so big and wide and has great confidence right now."
When it was suggested that his team's offense has evolved from a perimeter-oriented one to one now built on post scoring, Pitino nodded his head.
"It's changed. It's evolved, I agree," he said. "Since the Wisconsin game our offense has evolved to more of a low-post threat. Mo gives us great confidence and we're looking for him more. And especially with Andre Hollins not being healthy enough just yet, we need to go inside, because we're too easy to guard with Andre not 100 percent. And (Walker) gives us great confidence, and Joey King is starting to play with great confidence in the post."
Nobody gets any breaks in the Big Ten. Every road venue provides problems. For IU, Saturday's game provided an opportunity to snatch a road victory, and to achieving a .500 conference record, which many speculate will get teams into the NCAA Tournament field this season. (I'm amazed, by the way, at how many Big Ten coaches asked to be reminded of the score when they're asked about certain plays. It's an indication, I think, of how little they're focused on bigger pictures and how much they are focused on each single play when on the sidelines.)
Minnesota needed the win because it had lost three straight, and is getting ready for back-to-back road games at Wisconsin and Northwestern. Pitino praised Minnesota's fans at Williams Arena, which drew 14,625 to the game.
"We have a great home-court advantage here, and we're very appreciative of it," Pitino said. ". . . We have to take advantage of that, and build from it."
Crean continues to preach patience with his team.
"They're improving every day," he said. "Remember now, we're starting three freshmen. It's important that everybody, (media), the fans, keep that in perspective now. We've got a sophomore out there, and a senior, and three freshmen. And that was not a freshman group we played against. there's a reason they went to the (NCAA) third round. . . . We want to learn from this and be better tomorrow. We don't get much ahead of tomorrow. You can't. You just can't."
Pitino said he's been pleased with his team's attitude throughout its three-game losing streak. He noted that the team played together as well as it has all season in the triple-overtime loss at Purdue, then came back positive in practice the next day. He noted that DeAndre Mathieu, who finished with a game-high 16 points, had missed big shots in the losses to Northwestern and Purdue, but shook himself free on the dribble for the layup that clinched the game last night.
"They know we're close," Pitino said. ". . . I do believe in what we're doing, not just in us as coaches, I believe in these guys. I think they've got great substance as a team."