BOZICH | Indiana keeps defying the Big Ten odds, even by outlast - WDRB 41 Louisville News

BOZICH | Indiana keeps defying the Big Ten odds, even by outlasting Rutgers

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James Blackmon Jr. overcame a slow start to score 20 points as Indiana beat Rutgers. James Blackmon Jr. overcame a slow start to score 20 points as Indiana beat Rutgers.

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (WDRB) – Simple math: Indiana had not lost a Big Ten game the Hoosiers were supposed to win. They were two-for-two.

Ohio State, Michigan State and Purdue? Those three teams were supposed to beat Indiana. That's correct, the Hoosiers were underdogs in six of their first eight Big Ten games -- and sat at 5-3 in the league.

For more than 30 minutes, coach Tom Crean's team stretched and challenged that situation against Rutgers in Assembly Hall Saturday. They trailed by as many as eight. They trailed with less than seven minutes to play.

“We just had to tough it out,” said James Blackmon Jr., Indiana's freshman guard.

The Hoosiers watched the Scarlet Knights make seven of their first 10 three-point shots. They watched Blackmon miss jumpers, put backs and drives. Crean shook up his starting lineup and kept pushing button after button. The magic was not instant on.

In the end the Hoosiers did what they have done throughout the first half of the Big Ten season. They won – 72-64 – ending a two-game losing streak created by losses at Ohio State and Purdue.

“When you lose a couple of games like we did and you go on the road, it just messes with you,” Crean said. “But we knew that we had to get better … we just had to have a harder exterior.”

“Tom is doing a great job with his team,” Rutgers coach Eddie Jordan said. “They drive with aggression to the basket and they lead the conference in scoring.

“That's a heck of a thing to do. That's a great way to play. The kids must be happy to play in this system.”

In a season when the Vegas oddsmakers say Indiana should be 3-6, the Hoosiers are 6-3 in the Big Ten and 16-6 overall.

Indiana has won five of its six Big Ten games by eight points or less. They beat Maryland by 19. Their average margin of victory in their five other Big Ten wins is five.

That is a cushion of two possessions. Not bloody much.

That is the margin of error that Crean is working with his undersized, injured, group. But an IU team that was picked to finish 10th in the league by many has carved its way into a five-way tie for second place as the second half of Big Ten play begins.

The Hoosiers play five of their final nine league games at home.

“It wasn't about the margin of victory, it was about the way they got better in the game,” Crean said.

“It's not about playing hard. I think everybody does that, even when you lose … but you've got to be harder to deal with. You've got to be harder to score against, you've got to be harder to stop, you've got to be harder on the glass.”

Indiana has been small all season. On Saturday Crean started what had to be one of the smallest starting lineups of any Power Five Conference team in America.

The average height of IU's five starters was less than 6 feet 4 after Stanford Robinson and Nick Zeisloft replaced Robert Johnson and Troy Williams.

They teamed with Yogi Ferrell, Collin Hartman and Blackmon.

Nobody taller than 6-6.

Somehow Indiana grabbed 13 offensive rebounds and outworked the Scarlet Knights on the glass by eight.

Blackmon missed four of his first five shots but finished eight for 16, leading Indiana with 20 points. Zeisloft attempted only one shot in the first 33 minutes and then hit consecutive three-pointers that enabled the Hoosiers to spurt to a 64-57 lead.

In the end, IU also defended. In the first 10 minutes of the second half, Indiana failed to stop Rutgers on consecutive possessions. At winning time, Indiana stopped Rutgers seven of the final 10 times the visitors had the ball.

How did Williams respond to exiting the starting lineup?

Crean credited Williams with something the coach called an “Indiana triple-double.” That's 14 points, 12 rebounds and 11 deflections.

“I guess when I come to play like that we have a better chance of winning or impact when I come in and play with energy,” Williams said. “What I learned from it is what I just said I learned from it.”

“When Troy is playing that way, that's the Troy Williams that we need to have,” Crean said.

The grind continues Tuesday night. Indiana plays the best team in the Big Ten – Wisconsin, which improved to 7-1 in the league by defeating Iowa Saturday. Indiana has lost 12 consecutive games in Madison.

“We're happy to be in the mix, but we're not satisfied at all,” Blackmon said.

“I'm not ready to talk about Wisconsin yet, except they are unbelievably good,” Crean said.

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