by Kent Sterling
Why doesn’t freshman Noah Vonleh get the ball every possession, and when he gets it, why doesn’t he create offense? This is question one on the minds of Hoosiers fans after watching Indiana fall to 4-6 in the Big Ten tonight as Minnesota fought back from a 13-point deficit to win 66-60.
Vonleh scored 12 points on nine shots, and grabbed a dozen rebounds. From the 13:00 minute mark of the second half, Indiana mustered 12 field goal attempts, and scored 12 points. Vonleh took four shots, and made three. The rest of the team made 2-of-8.
The sad truth is that Indiana has two players who can function consistently on both ends of the court, and a bunch of misshapen pieces with jagged edges that don’t fit neatly together at all. Some can defend, and others can’t. Some can score, and others can’t. Some can’t or won’t do much of either.
Vonleh and sophomore point guard Yogi Ferrell are complete players, and the rest are trying to catch up. There are flashes of promise from the others, but Vonleh’s laudable generosity in distributing the ball to his fellow freshmen is misplaced if the Hoosiers hope to win a game like they played at the Barn.
The spinorama layup off the dribble with 5:56 left in the game was the kind of outstanding individual effort that causes scouts to project him as a top ten pick in June’s NBA Draft. Why he only shows that skill once a game is anyone’s guess, but the Hoosiers need it to compete for a bid in next month’s NCAA Tournament.
Without the magic to which Vonleh has access, the Hoosiers are too easy to defend. All resources are dedicated to stopping Ferrell from getting to the rim, and that is that. If Williams or Robinson beat you, that’s life.
If Vonleh stops himself by being selfless, and the defense stops Ferrell, opponents will like their chances.
I got two texts during the game tonight from an Indiana grad who will remain nameless. The first was a callback to the old joke about Michael Jordan and Dean Smith, “The only person who can hold Vonleh under ten points is Tom Crean.” The other was, “If Crean had coached at Auburn in the 1980s, Bo Jackson would have carried the ball five times a game.”
The sentiment is understandable. Somebody is to blame, and the skipper of the boat is Crean, but at some point, Vonleh needs to demand the ball and find a way to regularly assert himself. Offenses that work for the best shot regardless of the shooter are fun to play on, but when two guys can be counted on, those two need to carry the load.
Ferrell shot 16 times, but Vonleh’s nine attempts was one shy of Will Sheehey. The next time someone mistakes Sheehey’s offensive game for Vonleh’s, give me a call. Since the week before Thanksgiving, Vonleh has taken 10+ shots in a game once (vs. Northwestern). Over the same period, Vonleh is 11-for-15 from beyond the arc. I promise you that Crean is leaving texts, voicemails, and making personal pleas that Vonleh shoot the damn ball.
Indiana needs to get to 9-9 in the Big Ten to earn a spot in the NCAA Tourney. At 4-6, Indiana will need to finish 5-3 to get to 9-9 (who said I’m not aces at basic math?), and with four games at home and four on the road, that means a win on the road against Purdue, Northwestern, Wisconsin, or Michigan will be required, as will winning out at Assembly Hall against Penn State, Iowa, Ohio State, and Nebraska. A win tonight would have made the path to madness clearer.
Chaos has reigned throughout the Big Ten this season, so prognosticating what the Hoosiers or any other team will do from game to game is a waste of time, but what needs to happen for any of the teams to win is easy – as is the case with Indiana.
Whether IU can get to 9-9 is dependent in large part upon the play of its best player. That’s a lot of weight to put on the shoulders of a freshman, but with excellence comes expectations, and if Vonleh thinks this pressure is stifling, wait until he’s paid millions to do it.
If Vonleh is only going to spend one year in Bloomington, he should make it worthwhile.