BLOOMINGTON – Once again, Assembly Hall is a place of nightmares for Big Ten teams.
Gone are some of the jitters they had late in games. Gone are their long stretches of turnover-ridden basketball and lack of scoring. For at least a week-and-a-half, Indiana basketball looks more and more like the team of old.
Of course, you only talking about last year.
While comparing this young Indiana squad to the juggernaut of talent that was in Bloomington in 2012-2013 is a bit of a stretch, for the first time this season the Hoosiers look like someone to contend with as the calendar turned to March.
For a second time in three days a ranked opponent met their match in Assembly Hall, this time it was 22nd-ranked Ohio State, who could never answer a big Hoosiers’ 16-0 first half run in the second half as Tom Crean’s team beat the Buckyes 72-64 Sunday afternoon.
On the post-season ropes just two weeks ago, the Hoosiers (17-12, 9-9 in the Big Ten) now have life when it comes to an NIT bid. Perhaps for a Hoosier optimist, an outside chance for an at-large bid exists should Indiana win their final two regular season games then impress in the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis.
But for the moment Crean isn’t too concerned about the near future. After a rough season, he’s happy to stay in the present.
“This league is so tough that the only thing you can liken it to is a 15-round fight every night and we’ve been dealing with it in a good way,” said Crean. “I’m really, really proud of the way our team played today.”
He has a number of people to look at for that, starting first with his two most experienced players in Yogi Ferrell and Will Sheehey. The pair combined for 39 points on the evening-with Ferrell having 20 and Sheehey 19-while also knocking down six three-pointers.
The pair also helped do the job on the defensive end against the Buckeyes, holding Ohio State without a three-point basket. That’s the first time the Hoosiers have shut out an opponent behind the arc since the 2003 season.
“I think we are just clicking on all cylinders right now,” said Sheehey, who had 30 points in the Hoosiers’ win over No. 20 Iowa on Thursday. “Defensively we are playing with a lot more intensity. I think our guys are finally starting to feel a grove.”
That’s now produced three-straight wins but Sunday’s was perhaps the toughest because of the absence of the team’s leading rebounder Noah Vonleh. An inflammed left foot kept him out of the game against the Buckeyes and he is “Day-to-Day” according to Crean moving forward, but in the moment the team had to find a way to replace his rebounding.
In the end, the Hoosiers did. The managed to outrebound the Buckeyes 34-32.
“We had to rebound better,” said Crean of playing without Vonleh. “It’s absolutely got to be a gang rebounding mentality. I mean, all five guys more than ever because he gets so much done on the board.”
Crean got nine players to help out on Sunday, with Sheehey and Austin Etherington each came up with six rebounds a piece while Hanner Perea and Jeremy Hollowell collected five each. In his 15 minutes of play, Perea also scored eight points in his third game following a suspension for his arrest for OWI.
While he didn’t talk about the importance of the game after a rough few weeks, he did talk about his comfort level with his teammates now in his second year with the program.
“I just relax and play and I know my team more,” said Perea. “I know that if I have any trouble somebody’s going to be open so I just need to relax.”
For the first time, an entire team can breathe a sigh of relief as the troubled days of mid-February are over. Perhaps that won’t be the same for opponents from here on out.