KRAVITZ: Well, whaddya know? The streaking Hoosiers are playing defense

IU Basketball
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Bob Kravitz

This is not the IU team we watched play something resembling basketball in Maui, where the Hoosiers lost to Wake Forest and UNLV and played poorly in a victory over St. John's. This is not the IU team we saw get thoroughly dismantled – embarrassed, even – back on December 2 in Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium. This is not even the IU team who fell badly behind Notre Dame at the Crossroads Classic at Bankers Life, only to find a second wind (thank you, Troy Williams) and knock off the Irish. 
 
This is an IU team that has been transformed, or rather, has transformed itself. It's not just that the Hoosiers have won 11 straight games or that they're now 6-0 in the Big Ten after Tuesday night's 103-69 thrashing of Illinois
 
It's this: Heading into last night's game, the Hoosiers led – seriously, LED – the Big Ten in defensive efficiency. In conference games, they were third in scoring defense (64.4 points), third in field goal percentage defense (41.9) and led in both rebound margin (plus-8.6) and steals (plus-7.6). They didn't do much to alter those numbers Tuesday night, surrendering 69 points on 43 percent shooting, grabbed 13 more rebounds than the Illini and had four more steals. 
 
That first month and change, they couldn't guard an ottoman. Rebounding was optional, coming and going, depending on their mood. It was so bad, even Dick Vitale was aghast while working the IU game at Duke, enraged at IU's lack of defensive structure and disposition. 
 
And now, all of a sudden…they're not only the highest-scoring team in the Big Ten, they're one of the best defensive teams in the conference. 
 
What happened?
 
A couple of things happened.
 
• The schedule happened: Let's keep this in some kind of perspective; the Hoosiers haven't really played anybody of note except for Notre Dame, who beat Duke the other night in Durham. In this streak, they've beaten Morehead State, IPFW, McNeese State, Notre Dame and Kennesaw State, then have taken down some of the dregs of the Big Ten (Rutgers, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Minnesota and Illinois). And believe me, there are some dregs. The bottom of the Big Ten is as bad as I can remember it being in a very long time. Teams like Rutgers, Minnesota and this Illinois team are patently awful. Already, we have a pretty good idea that the conference will be a five-team race: IU, Purdue, Iowa, Maryland, and Michigan State. 
 
While all these victories are cosmetically pleasing and will surely help them make the NCAA Tournament, there have not been any wins that would serve to move them up a seed line or two. Those sorts of games don't happen for a while. There's the Feb. 11 game at Iowa. There's the Feb. 14 game at Michigan State. There's the Feb. 20 game against Purdue. There's the March 1 game at Iowa. There's the March 5 or 6 game against Maryland. 
 
This schedule is both a blessing and a curse: The Hoosiers play Purdue, Michigan State and Maryland just once. (Something is desperately wrong when IU plays Purdue just one time, but that's another story for another day). 
 
One cautionary note, though: Last year's IU squad moved to 5-1 in the Big Ten after a rousing victory over Maryland. They finished the Big Ten season 9-9 and stumbled into the post-season, where they eventually lost their first-round game to Wichita State. 
 
• James Blackmon, Jr.'s knee injury happened, specifically one game before the Big Ten season. We all understand that Blackmon is a wonderfully gifted shooter and scorer, one of the best combo shooting guards in the Big Ten. We also know he couldn't guard me – OK, well not me, but you get the general idea. Whether that's because he can't guard people or just isn't interested in guarding people, that's a question only he can answer. 
 
So I asked Tom Crean, "Is it unfair to suggest that some of these defensive improvements have come at the time James Blackmon went out?"
 
His answer was long and wandering, but I'll give you the Cliff's Notes, with lots of ellipses. 
 
"Yeah, I don't think it's realistic (to say that)," Crean said. "I've heard that from some others…The thing that people don't always see, it's like this defense, this team is getting better…Yeah, we miss James Blackmon. I mean, ask Mike Krzyzewski what it's like playing without Amile Jefferson…What it's done was OG (Anunoby) was that much more ready to play. He's getting more minutes. Juwan Morgan was starting to get healthy and Thomas Bryant was starting to get healthy. They're getting more reps in practice…
 
"But I hope no one – we miss James Blackmon…"
 
He responded the way I expected him to respond, the way I'd hope any coach would respond. He supported Blackmon, who he's desperately going to need next year when Yogi Ferrell and Nick Zeisloft are gone (and maybe some others). What sense would it have made for Crean to say, "Yeah, we're a much better defensive team without him." He's not going to kick a good player when he's down after knee surgery.
 
Here's what I say – or better yet, what I CAN say: They're clearly a better defensive team without Blackmon. This team already has enough players who can shoot and get their own shot. This team, which leads the Big Ten in offense at this early juncture, doesn't need any more points. It needs stops, and Blackmon, for whatever reason, is not a player who's going to help a team get stops. 
 
That doesn't mean IU doesn't want him next year or need him next year. That doesn't mean he still can't be a very special college basketball player. It just means that with Blackmon out, the door has been opened for some exciting freshmen to step in and play high-level defense. It's almost palpable, the energy they display on defense now, the pride they now take in defending opponents. 
 
"We didn't really know what we were doing to start off with," Ferrell said, echoing the sentiments of every single fan who lives and dies with this team. "But I felt like we got better concepts and we worked on those concepts every day in practice. With that, we've got to have a mindset that, OK, we want to get a stop and we want to hold them under a certain field goal percentage. If we do that and get multiple stops in a row, that's what gets us going and gets our offense going."
 
Tuesday night, IU put on more of an exhibition than it played a game, thanks, in some measure, to the fact the Illini were 12 kinds of horrible. Two special things happened:
 
• Ferrell set the program assist record, bypassing Michael Lewis, hitting Max Bielfeldt with a gorgeous no-look pass in the lane that led to an uncontested layup. Ferrell said later he had no idea that assist was the record breaker. 
 
"Oh, is that what it was?" he asked. He turned to Bielfeldt. "I got $20 for you." 
 
Somebody wondered if he'd really give Bielfeldt the cash. "Nah, I'm just joking," he said, laughing. "I'm a broke college kid, man."
 
• The Hoosiers hit 19 3-pointers, setting the school record for the most 3s in a single game; the final one came from the redoubtable Harrison Niego, who knocked one in late in the game. Remember that name the next time it comes up as a trivia question. 
 
IU was so good, so dominant, so overwhelming, Illinois head coach John Groce got out of his seat shortly after a timeout and screamed so loudly, you could clearly hear him over the din of the fans. 
 
"I've been doing this 20 years and I've never seen this!!" he screamed, his face red with passion and fury. "No pride!!"
 
For a little more than a month, it was fair to wonder where IU's pride might residing, especially their pride in defending people. It was bad in Maui, and it was worse, the absolute nadir, at Duke. Now, though, it's all different, and people are free to debate why. The important thing is, defense has begun to matter to these players, and suddenly, the Hoosiers look like a team with a chance to do big things.