Credit the freshmen.
It was the youngsters who gave the Hoosiers the jolt they required.
Spirited play from Devonte Green, Curtis Jones and De’Ron Davis pushed Indiana to a 76-57 win over struggling Rutgers on Sunday at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall.
That trio picked up IU’s starters after a sleepy beginning to the victory, only the Hoosiers’ second in the last six games. After IU (12-6, 2-3 Big Ten) fell behind 11-4 in the first four minutes, the freshmen helped punch back with a 16-1 run midway through the first half.
That spurt produced a 26-18 advantage by the under-8 timeout, and Indiana kept pace the rest of the way.
“I thought all three of those guys gave us a really good lift inside of the game,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said.
And this was a game that Indiana absolutely had to win against the softest opponent remaining on its schedule. Though they appear more focused under first-year coach Steve Pikiell, the Scarlet Knights (11-8, 0-6) don’t do anything particularly well, save for hitting the offensive glass. Indiana was out-rebounded for the first time this season, 38-29, and had only one board to Rutgers’ eight through the first four minutes.
It was a troubling start for the Hoosiers, who offered little defensive resistance at the rim and went more than three minutes before making their first field goal. Midway through the first half, it appeared that IU’s best lineup was the one featuring its top three freshmen.
Sunday saw more steady production from IU’s newcomers, who have made the most of their recent cameos. Indiana’s offense, especially, seemed to find its flow once Green checked in at the 14:44 mark. He handled the ball with purpose, and his steal and dish to Jones at 10:31 gave IU its first lead of the day.
“They bring energy, both of them,” said James Blackmon Jr., who scored a team-high 16 points. “When they’re locked into the game plan and they come out like that, like they did today, it really gives us a lift.”
One of Crean’s favorite mantras is “play on demand,” a simple request for preparedness and production from his players on the floor. In quick bursts, especially lately, Crean has found results from the trio of Green, Jones and Davis. The latter was exceptional earlier this month against Wisconsin. Jones also gave Indiana a jolt midway through the Maryland game on Tuesday, and Green has recently displayed some of his natural point guard qualities in his reserve role.
IU scored 13 more points than Rutgers during Green’s 15 minutes off the bench Sunday. Starter Josh Newkirk finished at zero for the same index in his 24 minutes of play.
“They’re getting better, no question about that,” Crean said of his most used freshmen. “And they’re improving. But a long way to go. Long way to go maturity-wise, long way to go understanding that urgency and long way to go when it comes to understanding how efficient you have to be possession by possession. That’s the hardest thing for any young player to really grasp is how important every possession is. How important every screen you set, every pass you make, every shot you take, every trip in transition, and it takes time for that to be understood. It really does, and that we have to continue to learn to get better.”
Consistency is also a key part of the equation, both in terms of freshmen and IU’s team at large.
In his rise from a first-year role player to key member in Indiana’s rotation as a sophomore, OG Anunoby is still trying to capture it. Against Rutgers, Anunoby looked like the best version of himself.
He was extremely active, recording 18 of Indiana’s 63 deflections. That included a career-high seven steals, tying him with William Gladness and Jim Crews for fourth-most in a single game by an IU player.
All told, IU finished with a season-high 14 steals — its most ever in a conference game under Crean.
“It was just really following the coach’s game plan and getting in the gaps,” Blackmon said. “When guys are driving on us, we like to help our teammates out. I feel like we did a great job of that tonight.”
In a game where Blackmon went 0-for-8 from 3-point range, Indiana’s leading scorer also did well at finding shots inside the arc and getting to the free throw line, where he hit four of his five shots. IU didn’t shoot particularly well, going 4-for-22 from beyond the arc, but turned the ball over merely 11 times while forcing Rutgers into 21 errors.
For the most part, Indiana’s defense was solid against a Rutgers outfit that struggles to shoot and score, with Juwan Morgan blocking three shots before leaving the game due to an ankle injury in the second half. Crean did not have an update on Morgan’s status after the game.
But on a day when not everything went according to plan, it was the crew of freshmen who helped make sure a critical home game turned into the win IU needed.