It was a long week, the kind that teaches a team how to play through fatigue.
IU played four games in eight days — that’s an NBA schedule, one that a Hoosier like Thomas Bryant hopes to soon conquer. But he’s not there yet, and midway through Sunday’s 83-55 win over Southeast Missouri State, he needed a reminder of what that life requires.
After Bryant made a hustle play in the final minute of the first half, IU coach Tom Crean called him to the bench and delivered a chest bump that served as an emotional jolt nearing the end of a taxing week.
“He wants to play at a level moving forward where this is an average week,” Crean said, “and he wants to do it for a decade-plus. So he was putting too much pressure on himself, not having fun. And that’s when he’s at his best.”
In front of a half-full Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, the Hoosiers (7-1) weren’t quite at their best against the Redhawks (4-4). But they didn’t necessarily need to be. IU still managed to shoot 51 percent from the floor, outrebound SEMO 44-33 and take advantage of its size and quickness to score 42 points in the paint.
The most important lesson from a tough stretch like this one — Sunday was also IU’s third game in five days — is not necessarily revealed in the box score but in the weeks to come. The Hoosiers, of course, can be forgiven for a late first-half lull that saw the Redhawks cut a 16-point deficit down to five with 4:52 left before halftime.
That’s because IU came out in the second half and locked in defensively, quickly building a lead that stretched to 29 points midway through the period and sealing its 23rd consecutive win on its home floor.
“We were solid, but we didn’t have that energy that you need to go with it,” Crean said. “It’s never going to be easy, right? And you don’t want that — that defensive energy sets the pace. They came out with that in the second half and I was excited.”
Even on an afternoon when the offensive opportunities were not present, Bryant found other ways to get engaged. He grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds and also tied his career high with four blocks, while making one of the two field goals he attempted and going 5-for-6 at the free throw line.
Robert Johnson scored a game-high 17 points, and he and James Blackmon Jr. each pulled down seven rebounds — important production given how OG Anunoby missed his second consecutive game with an ankle injury.
While Anunoby continues to recover, Juwan Morgan and De’Ron Davis gave Indiana a significant boost for the second consecutive night. Morgan is now 12-for-12 from the field across his past two games, finishing Sunday’s contest with 11 points and three rebounds in 22 minutes.
Davis added 14 points off the bench. He grabbed five rebounds and continued to take steps toward learning how to play side-by-side with Bryant in a bigger IU frontcourt.
“We had a situation where we’d call the ball screen for Thomas and then we ran a slip on it and he got De’Ron a layup,” Crean said. “When we can start to get to that … we weren’t as good with those two at the beginning of the game our numbers were good but our movement wasn’t as good.
“The next big thing, along with De’Ron being able to play those stretches is to be able to play with Thomas inside of those stretches even better than what they have as we move up the ladder here.”
Turnovers remain an issue Indiana has not yet overcome, finishing with 18 on Sunday. It’s an area the Hoosiers will have to clean up over the coming weeks, and they’ll have plenty of time to do so.
Indiana enters dead week with only two games scheduled over the next 12 days — a home game against Houston Baptist on Saturday at 4 p.m., and a date with Butler in the Crossroads Classic on Dec. 17 at 5 p.m.
“This week and next week are huge weeks for improvement, individually and as a team,” Crean said. “At the same time, we structure this week the way it is because of the academics. It’s a very busy week for them academically leading into exams.
“So we want to make sure that they have a good amount of time to get their projects done and all the stuff that they have this week. But at the same time when we’re here we’ve got to be really locked into the improvement.”