Indiana Shows Road Grit, Moves to 3-0 Away From Home In B1G With Win At NorthwesternPosted by Chris Johnson on January 20th, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Correspondent. He was at Welsh Ryan Arena Sunday for Indiana’s 67-59 win over Northwestern. You can reach him @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Midway through the second half of Indiana’s meeting with Northwestern Sunday at Welsh Ryan Arena, a thunderous chant rained in from the bleachers. “IU..IU..IU.” Crowds do not win basketball games, but the swaths of Hoosier partisans, and the contrasting miniscule showing of Northwestern fans, served as a microcosm of the proceedings on the court below. This was never a fair fight from the start. Indiana has more size, more depth, and more talent at practically every spot on the floor. If Northwestern was going to win this game, it needed all the dominoes to fall in its favor. It needed Indiana to miss shots it normally makes. It needed the Wildcats’ to carry over their 50 percent three-point shooting efforts from Thursday’s Illinois win. And most of all, it needed coach Bill Carmody to flummox an offense that has scored 1.20 points per possession thus far this season, fifth best in the country.
For a brief moment, as the Wildcats chipped away at Indiana’s 14-point halftime lead, the Hoosiers panicked. Northwestern unleashed its patented 1-3-1 zone to combat the match-up disadvantages posed by Cody Zeller and Christian Watford on the low block. “They sped us up for a while,” Zeller said. “We panicked. That’s what that defense forces you to do.” All the easy looks Indiana was getting in the first half – the nifty post ups, the uncontested threes, steady lane penetration – began to dissipate, and Northwestern pounced. Reggie Hearn led the second-half surge, scoring 13 of his 22 points after the break, but the Wildcats got contributions from unlikely sources. Jared Swopshire drained a three around the eight-minute mark, followed by a Hearn block and a cunning lay-in from Alex Olah. With under three minutes remaining, the Hoosiers’ lead had been sliced to five.
At that point, after clawing back from near-certain extinction in the first half, the Wildcats were in striking distance. Carmody had dialed up the perfect stumbling block for Indiana’s prolific offense, and the Hoosiers were flirting with their second consecutive loss. But for as much as the Wildcats fought and clawed and befuddled Indiana with a tricky defense, all Indiana needed, it seemed, was a minor breakthrough, a small hole in the 1-3-1 to bring a close to Northwestern’s efforts.
Much like the distinctly red Welsh-Ryan crowd, Indiana took control. The natural abilities of Zeller, Watford, Jordan Hulls, and all the rest negated whatever emotional or tactical edge Northwestern managed to conjure up in the second half. Zeller skied over a defender for a simple tip-in. Victor Oladipo hit a quick three to push the lead to 11. Next came a deadeye 15-foot pull-up from Will Sheehey. Those three scores, what Indiana coach Tom Crean called a “telling point” in the game, effectively closed the door. After a few back-and-forth free-throw foul sequences, Indiana had its third Big Ten road win sealed, and the bad taste of the Wisconsin loss Wednesday night was at least partially expunged.
It wasn’t a textbook Indiana offensive show, or even one of the Hoosiers’ better defensive games. For Crean, the biggest takeaway invoked a common theme to this Big Ten season. Winning on the road in this league is awful difficult. “To come in here today and get this result on the road, to win our third straight game on the road is a big deal,” he said. “ It’s not easy to win in any league. It’s especially tough to win in this league.”
His optimism is well-taken. Last season, Indiana opened conference play by losing four of its first five on the road. Already this season, Crean’s team has knocked off Iowa, Penn State and Northwestern – not exactly trademark road victories, but road victories all the same. That is, with little doubt, one of the biggest reasons why this year’s team promises to be so much more than a high-scoring Sweet 16 knockout. “We haven’t been very successful winning on the road in the past, so it’s big for us to start off 3-0 on the road in the Big Ten,” Zeller said. Indiana not only has the mental fortitude to grind out wins away from Assembly Hall, it has the defensive mentality to prevent teams from ripping off momentum-building runs.
That commitment on the defensive end — Indiana entered Sunday ranked ninth in the country in defensive efficiency, a remarkable improvement from finishing last season ranked 64th in the metric — and the mental strength to maintain that throughout the second half, is what allowed Indiana to withstand Northwestern’s second-half surge. And it could be what gets them through the rest of the Big Ten road. This won’t silence doubts from the midweek Wisconsin loss, wherein the Hoosiers ran into all kinds of problems on offense against the Badgers’ stingy defense. Northwestern entered Sunday with a clear strategic focus – slow the game down – and they were largely able to do that in key stretches of the second half. Indiana’s inability to adjust with tempo-clashing outfits (Wisconsin and Butler come to mind) will be a key development to follow as the Hoosiers meet tougher opponents, and better-equipped defenses, over the next two months.
Overall, Indiana did what it needed to do. Winning at Welsh-Ryan, overcoming a tricky zone defense (“Until you go through it, it’s hard,” Crean said of playing at Northwestern), and staying cool in another tough road spot – all of it equals the next step in a potential Big Ten title run.