BOZICH | Indiana, Crean topple SMU, Brown to polish their resumes
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (WDRB) – This was a game, the one Indiana won over SMU, 74-68, Thursday night in Assembly Hall, that the Hoosiers would have bobbled away last season. Write that down.
Fall behind early? The Hoosiers couldn't make enough three-point shots to overtake the better teams. Struggle on defense? Couldn't get stops when stops were essential.
Grind to the finish line in games where one or two possessions mattered? Something bad happened. It usually involved turnovers. A year ago the Hoosiers handled the ball as if it was covered with 10W40.
Check the numbers. Indiana played 11 games decided by six points or less last season. The Hoosiers lost seven of them. That explained a 17-15 record and no NCAA Tournament.
That didn't happen Thursday night.
Indiana protected the ball like it was the family china, turning it over seven times. They made big shots. They finished with poise in the final minutes. They won a game that looked good on the ESPN crawl beating a Top 25 program, something IU coach Tom Crean's teams have now done 16 times since the 2012 season.
The Hoosiers (3-0) did it against a team coached by a Hall of Famer (Larry Brown), a team with veteran guards, a team picked to finish second in Louisville's old league, the American Athletic Conference. They made the Mustangs look like freshmen, forcing SMU into 19 errors.
“A very impressive win for our team against a very impressive team,” Crean said. “They are capable of many things.
“To play against a team that prides itself on defense and help, with length like they do, and only have that amount of turnovers is a major step for us.”
Credit James Blackmon Jr., one of Crean's precocious freshmen. Credit Yogi Ferrell, IU's veteran point guard, And don't overlook another name – Nick Zeisloft, a transfer who averaged less than 7 points at Illinois State last season.
That trio combined for 49 points, making 11 of 23 three-point shots without a turnover in the group. Another thing: Those three made all 12 of their free throws.
Dwell on that turnover number – seven -- for a minute. This is a team that averaged more than 15 turnovers per game last season. Their turnover percentage -- only 10.4 of all possessions -- was better than anything delivered a year ago.
Start with Blackmon. He had 26 points. That gives him 70 in Indiana's first three games as he has made 11 of 18 three-point shots.
No freshman in the nation is averaging more than Blackmon's 23.3 per game. He's averaging 9 points per game more than any freshman in the Big Ten. He's score 17 more points than any freshman in the country.
“I can't beat him in H-O-R-S-E,” said Blackmon's father, James, who played at Kentucky from 1983-87. “I can maybe still beat him one-on-one. But he can outshoot me.”
Blackmon made five three-pointers. Zeisloft made three. So did Ferrell. Indiana made 12 of 33. That's two more threes than IU made in any game last season, when the Hoosiers didn't look like a team that learned how to shoot on the side of barn in French Lick or a playground in Marion.
How dramatically did Indiana's offense tilt toward a three-point shooting contest? This much -- 57 percent of IU's field-goal attempts were three-point shots. Indiana used the three the way Rick Pitino did at Providence or in his early days at Kentucky -- like something you can see from any player on any possession.
“The great thing about our team is even when we weren't making shots, none of our heads went down,” Ferrell said. “You're going to miss shots. We're human, not robots.”
“I don't care how many threes we take as long as they're in rhythm and balance,” Crean said. “This is a rhythm team.”
This was against a Larry Brown defense -- and Brown is a name worth repeating. No, the Mustangs are not the team that many projected they would be last summer – or even projected they would be six weeks ago.
First, top recruit Emmanuel Mudiay, a guard who picked SMU over Kentucky, bolted to play pro ball in China. Then forward Markus Kennedy was declared academically ineligible until the second semester.
Yes, SMU is ranked 22nd in the Associated Press Top 25. But the Mustangs (1-2) were blitzed at Gonzaga Monday night, trailing by 25 with less than two minutes to play before losing, 72-56.
But Brown is a Hall of Fame coach, who praised Crean's work after the game. Brown, remember, showed up ranked 21st on a list of the top 50 college basketball coaches that ESPN.com posted during the summer.
Crean was snubbed by ESPN, even though there were guys ranked ahead of him (Jamie Dixon of Pittsburgh, Fran McCaffery of Iowa) that Crean has handled often during his career.
Now Crean is 1-0 against guys on that list -- and he'll see 10 more coaches from that list this season. In fact, Pittsburgh is the next marquee game on the Indiana schedule. The Panthers visit Assembly Hall for the Big Ten/ACC Challenge on Dec. 2. The ESPN's board ranked Dixon 25th.
Crean isn't worried about that coach vs. coach stuff. He's still putting this team together. This was the first game back for Troy Williams, Stanford Robinson and Emmitt Holt, who were suspended for IU's two exhibitions and first two regular-season games.
“The thing about adversity is it's either going to break you or it's going to bond you,” Crean said.
For one night, the bond – as well as the ball-handling and poise -- seemed stronger than it did last season.
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