by Kent Sterling
Today’s games ended much as 2013 with be remembered among hoops fans in Indiana – thrilling, but ultimately unfulfilling.
The Pacers and Hoosiers kicked things off simultaneously, and I did my best to keep an eye on both while at Bankers Life Fieldhouse celebrating the New Year with the tenth sellout crowd of the season. My laptop showed the Indiana game on ESPN 2, and a crowd gathered to watch the overtime after the Pacers exploded in the fourth quarter to dispatch the Cleveland Cavaliers 91-76.
Just prior to the start of the Pacers and IU games, the Purdue Boilermakers came up a little short in their battle to stay within striking distance of the undefeated Ohio State Buckeyes. A.J. Hammons played with effort, and that made the Boilers competitive for a healthy portion of the game. The game was tied at 46 before LaQuinton Ross exploded for 17 of his game high 25 points in the last 11:20 to finish Purdue at Mackey Arena.
Ohio State took great care of the ball, as they turned it over only six times. Hammons led the Boilers with 18 points, 16 rebounds, and five blocks. If he can continue to play like that for the next two months, Purdue will be the surprise team in the Big Ten.
Indiana dropped its Big Ten opener in overtime at Illinois 83-80. The Hoosiers were led by Yogi Ferrell’s 30 points, and maintained a lead through most of the second half by shooting better than many would have expected. Coming into the game, Indiana hit three-point attempts just over 30% of the time. This afternoon, they knocked down 10-22, while Illinois canned only 2-17.
The stat of the game is the 23 turnovers for which Indiana was responsible. Winning on the road in the Big Ten is damn hard when 23 offensive possessions are wasted. The Hoosiers showed flashes of quality basketball, as you might guess as they took a decent Illini game to OT at their place while dumping the ball 23 times.
Butler lost a heartbreaker 76-73 in overtime against the 11th ranked Villanova Wildcats at Hinkle Fieldhouse in their first ever Big East game. Pendleton Heights grad Kellen Dunham showed the country why ESPN’s Dan Dakich believes he is the best college basketball player in the state as he tallied 22 points, including all seven of the Bulldogs points in overtime.
The game was as close statistically as an OT would make you guess. Virtually even in field goals made, rebounds, assists, and turnovers, these two teams battled to the very end. Down one with :14 left in OT, Butler had a chance to win it, but Dunham missed a tough three-pointer from in front of the Butler bench. A foul and two Villanova free throws allowed the Bulldogs another chance to extend the game, but a long pass went unretrieved, and the game ended.
The only team of the four from Indiana who won today were the Indiana Pacers, who ran their season record to 25-5 with a 91-76 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers. Entering the fourth quarter, the Pacers trailed 66-65. Then they awakened to put the screws to the Cavs, outscoring them 26-10 in the final 12 minutes.
In the last 11:30 of the game, the Pacers defended with enough tenacity to limit the Cavs to 2-13 shooting while forcing seven turnovers. When the game is on the line, the Pacers are capable of playing the best defense in the NBA, and their rotation of starter quality play runs nine deep.
Watching them play is a joy. It’s not that there is no ego on this team that makes them fun – it’s that they have an enormous collective ego and refuse to lose to a lesser team. The only bad loss of the first 30 games was at home against Detroit on a rare night when Josh Smith felt like asserting himself. The other four losses – at Portland, at Oklahoma City, at Chicago (on the one night when Derrick Rose played like Derrick Rose), and at Miami when the Pacers led by eight with four minutes left) all saw the Pacers at or near their best.
The best news might have been the improving play of Danny Granger, who is beginning to look nimble, and is losing the tentativeness that has marked his play in 2013. Granger not only cut well on the offensive end, but moved very aggressively on defense. He scored 12, but it was the pair of steals that should have Pacers fans buzzing.
If Granger can continue to play at this level into the playoffs, the decision not to deal him might be what puts them over the top in June.
It’s a little early to start prognosticating about success for the Hoosiers, Boilers, and Bulldogs in 2014, but not for the Pacers. While 2013 saw the end of the Brad Stevens Era at Hinkle, the high point for the Hoosiers five-year rebuild, and the beginning of another effort to get Purdue over the hump, talk about the Pacers playing deep into June is anything but premature.