CHICAGO – Indiana advanced to the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament on Thursday night with a 71-56 win over Northwestern at the United Center.
Here’s a look at five takeaways from the win over the Wildcats:
· Indiana played its most complete game in a while: The Hoosiers have struggled since beating Maryland 89-70 back on Jan. 22 and a 4-8 record over its last 12 had this group facing a must-win situation in its postseason opener.
It was fair to wonder how Indiana would respond in a pressure filled situation, but the Hoosiers started strong and never really let off the gas in its most complete effort in over a month. It was the third best defensive performance against a Big Ten team this season (.97 points per possession allowed) and a significant improvement over the first meeting in Evanston when the Wildcats torched IU for 1.25 points per trip.
Indiana’s renewed energy was evident early as it crashed the offensive boards and made things uncomfortable for Northwestern offensively by ramping up the ball pressure, getting into the passing lanes and holding to just 22 first half points. That set the tone for the rest of the evening as Indiana built a lead and was never really challenged from there.
“We moved the ball extremely well, but the pressure of our defense, the energy, the tenacity, all those things were really, really strong,” Tom Crean said. “I’m extremely proud of the coaches and the way that they prepared them and the way these guys and their teammates, the way that they played.”
CHICAGO — After IU’s loss to Michigan State on Saturday, a dejected James Blackmon Jr. sat at the press table saying he didn’t get it going soon enough.
Tonight, as Blackmon Jr. and Yogi Ferrell sat down to the meet the media, it was all smiles.
Blackmon Jr. got it going early, scoring 13 points in 16 minutes of first half action on 3-of-6 shooting from distance. He finished the contest with his best effort away from home this season — 25 points (8-of-15), six rebounds (four offensive) and a career-high seven assists. The freshman’s effort, energy and stat-stuffing ways were indicative of Indiana’s performance tonight in its comfortable 15-point victory over Northwestern.
“I think tonight was all about our mindset,” Blackmon Jr. said.
From the onset, the Hoosiers got up in Northwestern’s grill and made them work for buckets. Where this has been for so long this season, who knows. But it was clear this was a point of emphasis for the Hoosiers. With each stop, deflection and recovery on defense, the Indiana bench cheered — creating a feedback loop for the energy being expended on the court.
“We went out there and created our own energy,” Ferrell said.
At one point in the first half, the Wildcats went 8:28 of game action between field goals. Indiana punched the lead out to 24-6 at this point, and it pretty much was the catalyst for the victory. Indiana held the Wildcats under a point per possession (.98) and that’s an encouraging sign heading into Friday night’s matchup with Maryland. Tre Demps killed the Hoosiers in Evanston. Tonight, Demps had just four points on 2-of-5 shooting as Ferrell and Robert Johnson hounded him throughout the contest.
“The pressure of our defense, the energy, the tenacity, all those things were really really strong,” Tom Crean said.
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Indiana begins postseason play on Thursday evening in the Big Ten tournament at the United Center. The seventh-seeded Hoosiers will open against Northwestern. The Wildcats won the only regular season meeting between the teams, 72-65, on Feb. 25 in Evanston.
The game will be broadcast at 6:30 p.m. ET on ESPN with Mike Tirico, Dan Dakich and Quint Kessenich on the call:
For the second straight season, Indiana heads to the conference tournament following a loss. But unlike a season ago where the Hoosiers went 3-3 in their final six Big Ten games, this Indiana team finished the regular season just 2-4 in its final six contests and in the midst of a three-game losing streak.
As documented in Tuesday’s March Watch, it’s been a steep fall for the Hoosiers in recent weeks from a team that looked like a very solid bet to return to the NCAA tournament to squarely on the bubble for selection. While there’s no certainty that Indiana will make the tournament by winning Thursday’s game against Northwestern, a loss probably seals IU’s fate as a N.I.T. team.
The notion of the “must-win game” is often tossed around as cliché, but in this instance, it’s an accurate description of where Indiana stands in terms of the NCAA tournament. Win and there’s still a discussion to be had. Lose, and well, start prepping for another year with no March Madness.