BLOOMINGTON — Some of the old weaknesses remain. Surely, you remember them: the endless string of frustrations, the turnovers and sloppy offensive sets and lack of low-post production.
It helped that no one seemed interested in defending Verdell Jones within five feet of the basket, from his first point to his 27th. And it helped that Christian Watford got more assertive offensively in the second half, taking over during a particularly offense-deprived stretch when IU sorely needed some points.
But what does it say about this team that the fouls (24) can pile up, turnovers can still drag opponents back into games and Indiana is still capable of long scoring droughts (6:53 in the middle of the second half) and yet is still capable of winning by 23 points when the pre-game line hovered around 5.5?
“It just gives us an identity. We’re a defensive team,” Watford said afterward. “We understand that, and we’re willing to work at that.”
Identity … at Indiana … imagine that. Defensive identity to boot. This from the Indiana team that actually gave up as many points last year to Bo Ryan’s perfect-for-the-Big Ten offense in Madison as its football brethren did on Saturday. (A cheap shot, but an illustrative one.)
Indiana closed down Wright State. Outside of a brief bout of offensive success to start the game, the Raiders were smothered. At the first TV timeout, Wright State led 7-4, with a 3-of-5 shooting line. It scored 37 points, and shot a miserable 12-of-41 over the game’s remaining 35:51. The 19 points Wright State scored in the first half marked the lowest number for any opponent in the Crean era.
Not bad, eh?
“We’ve just got to cut down on our turnovers and stuff like that,” Watford added to the end of the aforementioned comment. “We’ll be OK.”
So it’s not all sunshine and light. And I acknowledge that Wright State doesn’t present the challenge of Kentucky, or of Boston College, or even of Penn State. (Maybe of Iowa. Rough night for the Hawkeyes.)
But Indiana is learning to be a lockdown defensive team. More importantly, it’s learning the varied benefits of being able to use Watford’s word: identity. Or as Verdell Jones put it: “Defense creates offense.”
Off just 12 Wright State turnovers, Indiana directly scored 16 points. The Hoosiers poured in 18 fast-break points, and doubled up the Raiders in points in the paint.
“I think the proof is there that it’s getting better,” coach Tom Crean said after the game of his team’s defensive mindset. “If there’s one thing I’m nervous about, it’s getting consistent.”
“But I think any time you have a team that is young in certain areas and hasn’t had success and hasn’t had it handed down to them how to play, that’s what our older guys are starting to do now. The consistency is what we’re looking for, every day.”
It said something, perhaps, that Crean’s first comments upon meeting with the media were about defense. Because in the end, as tired as the cliches have become, defense really is the greatest asset a team can have. Turnovers can be overcome, poor offensive stretches mitigated and games won all through a defense that is stringent, miserly and able to feed the transition game. So far, Indiana has that, or something close to it. There might not have been a more important addition all offseason.