It’s become clear through the first week of the Big Ten season that road victories are going to be difficult to come by. For that reason, Indiana feels increasingly lucky that it already has one.
The Hoosiers were far from perfect on Monday against Iowa in a 66-60 victory, but happenings around the league gave new perspective to the value of that victory and what it can do for Indiana going forward. The Hoosiers play at Penn State at 7 p.m. on Monday, and they expect the experience of having already played in a hostile environment to help going forward.
“It’s important,” IU coach Tom Crean said. “I think it’s very important. I think it’s crucial that they have that because of the way that we won. This team needs to be in some fights. We said that after the game to them. We’ve been in some fights. The only way you can really learn to win consistently in a league like this is to find your way through it. I think it was really important, I think it gave them confidence.”
It was important that a game like that came early in the league schedule, because the Hoosiers hadn’t played a true road game before Monday. Ten of the Hoosiers’ 13 non-conference games were at Assembly Hall. The other three were all at neutral sites and only two — the games in the Legends Classic in Brooklyn, N.Y. — occurred outside of the state of Indiana.
So many of the lessons they took from Monday’s games were new. They’d had little experience with trying to communicate with each other in a hostile environment and having to keep it together while the shots weren’t falling and the other team was building momentum and taking adrenaline from their home crowd.
“It’s really hard to simulate adversity,” IU assistant Kenny Johnson said. “Basketball is a game of runs. We’re making our runs, they’re making their runs, their crowd is in it, and we have to make sure we make our defensive adjustments. … Just coming together as a team. There’s nothing like the road to help a team bond even at a higher level than you had previously.”
In order to keep winning games like those, the Hoosiers said, they have to communicate better, especially in transition defense, making certain everyone has their assignment right and knows where help defense is coming from.
“We have to do it 100 times better on the road,” IU freshman point guard Yogi Ferrell said. “Especially because you’re not going to be able hear, especially in Big Ten games. I know at Iowa, I couldn’t really hear. It’s just that much more focus that we have to have on communication on offense and defense.”
Penn State’s Bryce Jordan Center is by no means the Big Ten’s most difficult venue. The cavernous NBA-style arena is rarely close to filled, especially when the team is struggling. The Nittany Lions are 8-5 so far, but with All-Big Ten guard Tim Frazier out for the year with a ruptured Achilles tendon, they are expected to finish near the bottom of the conference.
Still, the Lions are more dangerous at home like any team in the conference and they have kept it together in Frazier’s absence. Southern Mississippi transfer D.J. Newbill has taken over the point guard duties and because Penn State’s leading scorer, averaging 15.5 points per game. Junior guard Jermaine Marshall gives them another potent backcourt scorer. He averages 14.9 points per game.
“Marshall’s handling the ball, Newbill is handling the ball, those guys are taking most of the shots,” Crean said. “Their teammates feed off them. They’re really dangerous when they’re in the same action, when they’re on same side, which they seem to be a lot. They both have things that they really, really do well. They have strengths that you’ve gotta really go into and try to attack those.”
Said Johnson: “Newbill, transitioning into the league, he’s a guy who’s very good. He really doesn’t have any weaknesses as far as his ability to drive the ball hard to the right. He’s good at pull-up jumpers, he’s good getting to the basket. He has that warriors mentality.”
— Crean said he wants to see senior Derek Elston and freshmen Jeremy Hollowell and Hanner Mosquera-Perea get involved and make big plays in critical stretches of the game more often, because he feels like IU is more often operating like a seven-man team. That as been difficult for all three because of their absences.
Hollowell missed three games with a yet unexplained NCAA eligibility issue and has since been reinstated. He wasn’t physically held back, but Crean said that any absence for a freshman is painful.
“Jeremy missed three games,” Crean said. “When a freshman misses a day of practice, it’s like missing a week. When you take somebody out for three games, that makes it that much harder, and then your first game back is your opener in the Big Ten. Experience is a part of it. Speed of the game is a part of it, but just having an understanding of what those games take, and the concentration that it takes.”
Elston missed much of the first two months of the season with a torn meniscus and has struggled to find his rhythm and his place in his return. He’s averaging 8.8 minutes per game so far. He’s scored just four points, making just one of eight field goal attempts, and is grabbing 1.8 rebounds per game. More of a disappointment for Crean is that he’s been less vocal than he was when he was out and coaching from the sideline.
Crean said he saw good signs in Saturday’s practice, but he needs to see more of that.
“Today, he played like a guy who has played a lot of years and played a lot of games,” Crean said. “With his help defense, his blocking out, those are the things, he’s gotta control what he can control. The shot going in right now may not be it, but keeping his man in front, being a help defender, being a rebounder, those things are really, really important, then the offense comes. What I’ve said to him, he’s gotta go out there and enjoy himself. He can’t be a guy that is really vocal with his teammates when he’s out like he was — and he was tremendous, it was like having another coach — and then be really quiet when he comes back because he’s thinking and because this may not be going well or I’m not making this shot or I’m not making that shot. You just can’t do that. You’ve gotta play right over that. It’s all part of that ongoing dialogue that teammates have to have.”
Crean said he thinks Mosquera-Perea is also thinking too much. He’s been eligible since Dec. 15 when his nine-game NCAA suspension ended and had his good moments and bad moments. He’s averaging 2.4 points and 2.6 rebounds in 8.6 minutes per game so far, but is clearly still trying to find his way on both sides of the floor.
“Really, for him right now, it’s just totally unleashing that athleticism,” Crean said. “Using that wingspan. All young guys think too much. … When Hanner is aggressive, when he gets out and spreads out, when he runs the court, (he’s really good). You can tell he’s thinking too much because some of the dunks that he misses. Instead of just going up, this guy’s gonna win many, many dunk contests in his life like he already has. Just go up and play. There’s that comfort level that has to come. You can’t force-feed it, but you want them to get more comfortable with what they’re doing. That way, you can keep challenging them to improve, and that’s where the growth really comes.”
— Crean said redshirt junior guard Maurice Creek has been shooting, but still has his foot in a protective boot.
“He’s been shooting, but he’s still got his boot on,” Crean said. “We have a timeline, but it’s not a public one.”