Indiana Hoosiers Search for Answers After Blowing 16-Point Lead to Nebraska

by Kent Sterling

Every game's end finds one coach relieved and one coach miserable.  Tonight, it's Nebraska's Tim Miles turn to be relieved.

Every game’s end finds one coach relieved and one coach miserable. Tonight, it’s Nebraska’s Tim Miles turn to be relieved.

There are a many reasons I’m not a basketball coach, but one of the reasons I’m glad I’m not a basketball coach is what tonight will be like for Indiana’s Tom Crean.  I wouldn’t sleep because I would have spent tonight’s game lamenting that I had no idea how to get the combination of players at my disposal in a position to score enough points to win.

I would wonder whether I didn’t understand something about the game; whether I nodded off during a camp when the strategies for running an offense perfectly suited for a team that shoots it poorly from outside was presented.

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I would wonder how many times I needed to tell the players the same thing again and again to make them understand where they need to be, and what shot we are looking for before it finally sinks in.

There is no shame is losing to Nebraska 60-55 at their place.  Ohio State and Minnesota did the same thing this month, and they aren’t too damn bad, although I’m starting to wonder about the Buckeyes who lost at home last night to Penn State.

With tonight’s win, Nebraska won back-to-back conference games for the first time since joining the conference, so now the Hoosiers and the Huskers are tied at 3-5 in the Big Ten, one game out of last place.

The Hoosiers squandered a 16-point first half lead, but that lead was artificially enhanced by consecutive banked three-pointers that turned a one-point lead into a seven-point bulge with 5:13 to play in the first session.  If Indiana had won, fans would make no apologies for the gifted triples, but after a  loss to a program that not long ago presented a minimal challenge, those points seem even cheaper.

As has been the case when defenses collapse to stop the drive, and allow Indiana to weigh the pros and cons of open three-point shots, the Hoosiers turned it over again and again – a total of 19 times tonight.

Few of those turnovers were the excusable kind.  Bad passes.  Bad travels.  Bad decisions trying to drive through two and sometimes three defenders.  Indiana displayed a wide variety of ways to hand the ball to Nebraska.

Fans will look at a wide variety of people to blame for the madness that has wrought losses to Northwestern and Nebraska during the same season.  Crean will likely be the source of much of that frustration, and rightly so.  He’s the captain of this ship.  The buck stops with him.  If it’s a player problem, the blame can be laid at Crean’s feet as he’s the guy who invited them to Bloomington.  If it’s a strategic issue, that’s obviously Crean.

My take is that this is just an ugly season of fits and spurts with a very young team that does the kind of things very young teams do.  Crean is trying everything, and none of it works against a team that can move the ball quickly on offense and move its feet quickly on defense.

Indiana lost 70% of its points from last year’s Big Ten champion, and two-thirds of its rebounds.  The top ten recruiting class that is now freshman is talented, long, and athletic, but don’t know how to be consistently focused and productive in the Big Ten.  The sophomores – minus Yogi Ferrell – aren’t any better.  Maybe the Charmin-soft non-conference schedule gave the youngsters a little more confidence than was warranted.

Lots of maybes this season to go with an uncomfortable amount of losses.

There are moments of grace for the Hoosiers where possessions with crisp execution and good ball movement result in an unchallenged shot.  Then there are possessions where players point at each other after throwing the ball away.

It’s hard to watch for fans who all think they could coach because they listened to Bob Knight talk about the beauty and functionality of the motion offense.  It’s hard to watch for Crean because Indiana isn’t very good right now, and doesn’t appear to the naked eye to be improving.

And it’s not easy for me because it causes me to admit that not only shouldn’t I coach basketball, I don’t even want to.

11 thoughts on “Indiana Hoosiers Search for Answers After Blowing 16-Point Lead to Nebraska

  1. Jeff Russell

    I didn’t watch last night–smelled this coming and was too busy to waste my time. First thing I did this morning was get a cup of joe and read your blog to confirm my fears. This more a season on the brink than Knights’. Season of the stink.

  2. Warren / TN.

    Although I didn’t get to see the game last night, from what I’ve been reading this morning, CTC’s substitution patterns are once again being questioned. Is it true that Vonleh and Ferrell was on the bench late in the game with the score being so close? If so, that is just…. wrong.

    I’m looking at the box score and can someone tell me why Vonleh only got 27 minutes? Out of 40? Doesn’t look like fouls were an issue. What am I missing? Also, 19 turnovers. That couldn’t have been pretty. Not going to win games with that many TO’s, that’s for certain. Blowing a 16 point lead in a game the Hoosiers needed is a terrible blow.

    I’m not going to yuck it up as a UK fan, my Cats’ have their own issues and better improve quickly or we’ll be staring at the bubble! As for IU, this loss really, really hurts in the overall picture of trying to land a NCAAT berth. The already razor thin margin became that much more thin, and with games against UM and a road trip to Minny upcoming, the season appears to be on the verge of a bust. Personally I feel, if the Hoosiers drop both, it’s essentially over. That would be an absolute shock to me, considering how I thought it would go down to the wire as to landing a berth in the tournament.

    I think college basketball is much better when the elite teams do well and all make the tournament. So far, the elite teams this year have had a rough road to hoe. Duke, UL, UCLA, Kansas have all lost 4 games. UK 5, UNC 7, and Indiana 8. Some of it due to tough OOC scheduling, some of it due to poor play in games they should have done better in. In some, it was a combination of both. Hopefully this isn’t a trend that continues for any of us.

    There’s a thread over on Peegs that makes a great point, it’s titled “IMO, the era of the “elite programs” is over.” The poster makes a great observation and its’ a topic worth more in-depth discussion. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. However, if it’s true, considering the current state of affairs in the college game, a sport we truly love is continuing a decline in a most serious way. Sad, very sad.

    1. kentsterling Post author

      Some excellent points. Thanks for sharing.

      A couple of thoughts…

      The difference between the haves and have nots is right where you would guess given Butler’s back-to-back trips to the NCAA Championship Game. There are more really good players than ever, and they have trickled down to the mid-majors.

      Indiana’s has only lost eight games because of their non-conference schedule, which was incredibly weak.

      Crean substituted liberally throughout the game, but I’m not critical of that. He seems to be as unsure of which five are the best five as the fans are. I think he’s hoping that someone comes into the game with some confidence and fire, but that hasn’t happened, so he keeps digging deeper.

      Vonleh had a tough night. Defenses are sagging to stop the drive and are doubling Vonleh constantly because with the exception of Ferrell, no one can consistently hit threes. That makes scoring almost very difficult. Until somebody knocks down shots, Vonleh is going to have a tough time being effective offensively. Four of Vonleh’s five TOs and all three fouls came in the last 20:30 of the game.

      You are right that if Indiana drops to 3-7 in the Big Ten, it will be incredibly tough for Crean to keep the kids enthused about the final month of the season.

  3. Jeff Gregory

    If I was Tom Crean, I would be concerned after last night’s game. It isn’t because they lost to perennial lightweight Nebraska. It is tough to win on the road in the Big Ten no matter where a team plays. In addition, Nebraska has shown they are no longer an automatic “W” this year.

    No, the reason Crean should be concerned is that he, again, has been exposed for his lack of ability to attack a zone. I am not sure how many times a coach can get humiliated by a zone defense before he decides to do something differently. Shoot, hire a good high school coach to teach his team how to run a zone offense, if no one there gets it! If I was coaching any team that has to play IU, I would play a zone and like my chances.

    Even in the man to man, Nebraska cheated the lane and took away IU’s offensive strengths (Vonleh, and driving). I still say that he needs to take Vonleh off the block more. Sure, he is the best post player on the team, but everyone knows that and cheats inside. They kept him on the block all night and he managed only 7 points. If he comes outside more (more, not all the time), he can still flash in the post. In addition, he is probably one of the best perimeter shooters on the team – which isn’t saying much (10-18 3pt fg on the year).

    Like you said, Kent, they did lose a lot last year. I may be wrong, but I think Crean was a little eager for guys to leave. Oladipo was ready and he graduated. It didn’t make sense for him to stay. However, Zeller wasn’t completely ready for the NBA. He would have benefited from another year at IU and IU would have surely benefited from his staying. Sure, he was a lottery pick, but if it is only about money, then the one-and-done players fit that “quickest way to money” model so we should shut up about it. I mean, when it comes down to it, is there THAT much of a difference between one and done, and two and done?

    I’m still in favor of giving Coach Crean another year to draw any concrete conclusions about his ability to sustain an elite program, but he did himself no favors last night.

    1. kentsterling Post author

      The primary difference between a one-and-done and two-and-done player is that the one-and-done is much more likely to have been a none-and-done. I don’t believe those ready to play in the NBA should be prevented from doing so, and they have no business playing in college when their interest is elsewhere.

      Jeff, you and I both know how to attack a zone, so I’m betting Crean does too. His players have a tough time beating a zone because they don’t move the ball quickly and can’t shoot (other than Ferrell and Vonleh).

      Indiana recruits defenders rather than shooters, and that makes success difficult. The theory might be that shooting can improve, but length can’t. Keeping a team from scoring is half the battle, and until Robinson and Williams get some shooting rhythm life is going to be tough for the Hoosiers.

      Etherington and Gordon passing up shots can’t be tolerated. My son had a great assistant coach in summer ball who would stop practice when a kid passed up an open shot. I saw that team hit 60% from beyond the arc during a tourney in Muncie. No one hesitated or questioned. It looks like the Hoosiers – other than Ferrell and Vonleh – are reluctant shooters. They need to pull the trigger and live with the result.

      1. Jeff Gregory

        On your first point, I would argue that there are very few 18 year-old kids that are READY (mind and body) to play in the NBA.

        About the zone: Somewhere in my mind, I have to agree with you and believe that Crean knows what to do against a zone. However, I don’t know what’s harder to believe, Crean not understanding how to attack a zone, or a group of D1 players not being able to execute a zone offense. It is not complicated. The zone is the first defense that most kids learn in organized ball. Therefore, it is also the first offense that kids learn to execute (other than memorized patterns that little kids learn no matter what defense they are playing against).

        IU looks lost against a zone – almost to the point where it looks like they don’t even recognize what they are up against. Contrary to popular belief, a team doesn’t have to be a good at perimeter shooting to beat a zone, although it certainly helps. A good zone offense can usually get a good look from either 12 ft, or a weak side layup. IU doesn’t even look for those opportunities very often. They stand around, and as you have pointed out, move the ball slowly around the perimeter until they just run out of time. It is ridiculous at this level.

        1. kentsterling Post author

          The decision as to whether an 18 year old is ready to play at the NBA level should be made by his future employer. If the 30 NBA teams pass on a kid twice, he should play elsewhere – college or Europe. That age restriction is now obsolete as kids and their families are making the choice to reclassify a grade ahead, thereby allowing them to graduate a year early and then gain NBA eligibility year earlier.

          Though IU had two very nice possessions against the Nebraska zone. One resulted in a Sheehey layup, and the other a 15-footer at the elbow by Sheehey.

          Indiana likes to ball screen against a zone, but that requires a quick read for imbalance. The result IU gets is two defenders near the ball as they try to score. This might be easier to defend on some levels, but I like to balance the floor, move away from the ball, and work to enter the middle as defenses adjust to quick ball movement.

          1. Jeff Gregory

            So you think a kid is ready based on someone else’s willingness to pay them . . . Not me. I guess that is where we will disagree. Readiness for the NBA lifestyle is not just being able to hold your own against the best players in the world. It is also having the maturity to successfully live the lifestyle that the NBA affords (money, travel, temptations). That is why I believe that a kid should have to achieve something in college, if nothing else something that certifies that he has been instructed on how to be successful with the money and lifestyle the NBA affords. I went into that in another thread, so I won’t expound on it here. I also have an idea about a farm system similar to baseball where a kid can learn these “skills” without the traditional classroom setting. I understand that some kids just aren’t meant for a traditional kind of learning environment.

            I saw a couple of nice zone offense possessions, too, in the Nebraska game. Because of the context of the rest of the game, I chalked it up to flukes. I agree with you about how to attack the zone. Ball movement keeps the defense off balance and opens up vulnerable areas in a zone.

            Don’t get me started on the ball screen nonsense. I guess I am the kid calling out the Emperor’s “new clothes” when it comes to ball screens; I just don’t see it. There are only so many options an offense can do with a ball screen and college defenses know them all (probably because they all do it). Spacing is the key to good offense, in my opinion.

          2. kentsterling Post author

            We definitely agree on basketball strategy. Not sure whether we both know what we are talking about or not, but we definitely share a philosophy.

            Not sure there is a better way to assess readiness for a job than an employer’s desire to hire him or her – regardless of the business. There are plenty of financial washouts who spent four years in college. Indiana University sure as hell didn’t do much to prepare me to handle vast wealth – a good thing as it would have been an incredible waste of their resources.

            There are different roads for people to choose, and that’s the way it should be. Pacers play-by-play voice Mark Boyle knew what he wanted to do, decided his time was better spent getting professional experience, and never attended college. Is his life less rich for his choice? He became a the broadcaster for a major league franchise before he turned 30. Good thing journalism doesn’t have an age restriction.

          3. Jeff Gregory

            I don’t agree. There are many businesses that exploit employees before they are mature enough to handle it. I am not sure the almighty dollar is the end all or be all of good judgment. Do you think it is possible that teams draft young, unready players because they don’t want their competition to have those players when they become an asset to their team?

            I think comparing a kid trying to get into broadcasting and NBA rookie is apples and oranges. Not too many 18 year-old broadcasting hopefuls working in radio or television suddenly makes $3M+ a year with the travel perks and demands of that lifestyle. These young millionaires don’t have to hear the word “no” when exercising their new money power and celebrity.

            I am not saying that ALL of these players can’t handle it; I am just saying that wisdom provides that those that can are the exceptions. You don’t think that at least an NBA prep curriculum is a good idea?

            I also mentioned that a mandatory NBA prep league (with modest salary) is another option outside of the school atmosphere. Is that a bad idea? Both options prepare a kid for the NBA life.

            Again, there are A LOT of jobs that require a degree that can be performed well without them. That degree represents more than gained knowledge. It also represents work ethic, maturity, and the ability to follow through.

          4. Jeff Gregory

            Addendum: The NBA should do all they can do to protect its brand. These (in my comment above) are things that do just that and also protects these kids from disaster and exploitation.

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