WASHINGTON — All through the winter doldrums that dropped his team to the Big Ten cellar, this was the group Tom Crean believed he had all along.
This was the team the Indiana coach guided to a season-opening win over Kansas. It was the team Crean seemed to see in practice and the team he believed would surface once again.
This was the version of Indiana that can beat just about anyone.
In their opening game at the Big Ten Tournament, the 10th-seeded Hoosiers validated their coach’s belief, throttling No. 7 Iowa, 95-73, in a second-round matchup Thursday at the Verizon Center.
The win was fueled by a strong all-around game by James Blackmon, a flurry of 3-pointers and valuable contributions from Indiana’s freshman class. For much of the season, as injuries mounted and losses piled up, Crean reminded those who would listen that this team held the potential to look much different — especially if shots fell with consistency.
On Thursday, they most definitely did.
“We’re making shots that we have at times missed this year,” Crean said, “but it was never a question that we were not a good shooting team. It’s a matter of making sure that the ball is moving. Whether it’s sets, concepts, free-flowing, whatever it’s — the break, the shot clock, everything in between. As long as the ball is moving, we’re ready to shoot, we’re playing through the paint or the post, those are when good things happen.”
Indiana (18-14) now has the opportunity to extend its fortune tonight in a quarterfinals matchup with No. 2 Wisconsin, which claimed both of the regular-season meetings between the schools.
Should the Hoosiers replicate Thursday’s performance — or even offer something similar — the third matchup could go the other way. The Badgers, who enjoyed a double bye in the conference tournament, have lost five of their last seven games entering the postseason.
“We just gotta stick to the personnel,” IU’s Thomas Bryant said. “We know what we have in front of us.”
Indeed, Crean sensed his players had a good grasp on the gravity of the moment entering this week’s trip east. On Thursday, the Hoosiers followed through. The win over Iowa marked the first time IU has scored 95 points against Big Ten opponents in back-to-back games since Jan. 31 and Feb. 4, 1998.
Indiana, which led 43-40 at halftime, used a 17-2 run midway through the second half to put this game away.
Blackmon scored 23 points, going 7-for-9 from the field, grabbed eight rebounds and dished out four assists. The junior was at the crest of a supercharged shooting performance from the Hoosiers, who connected on 12 of their 20 shots from beyond the arc.
“I thought what James did better in the second half even than the first was he cut,” Crean said. “He was getting from one side to the other. When he does that, whether it’s off a screen, which is a little more set, but when it’s just moving without the ball, getting into the open gaps, then separating off the dribble a little bit, he could have done an even better job of that. We’ll be able to show him some of that on the film. He’s a byproduct of what they all are. The defense was there.”
In the only regular season meeting between these teams, a 96-60 overtime win for Iowa (18-14) last month, the Hoosiers came undone by foul trouble and a big night by Peter Jok.
Jok, a first team All-Big Ten guard, was mostly silent this time around. He went only 4-for-11 from the field and didn’t make a single trip to the free throw line after setting an Iowa record by going 22-for-23 at the stripe against IU in Iowa City.
“I think we did a bad job as far as guarding him without the fouling last game,” Robert Johnson said. “This game we were able to not foul him and not put him on the free throw line.”
As a team, Iowa’s production at the line was much more muted compared to last month, with the Hawkeyes going 6-for-10.
IU’s most noticeable struggle Thursday was keeping an eye on guard Jordan Bohannon. The freshman had 15 points and five 3-pointers through his first 17 minutes of action. But Bohannon aside, Iowa made merely 11 of its first 29 field goal attempts.
Just as Bohannon put Iowa on his back, Indiana had its own offensive buoys.
Of course, there was Blackmon. There was also De’Ron Davis, who scored 15 points, including nine in his first seven minutes of action. Davis finished 7-for-7 from the field.
“(I was) just being aggressive, playing low,” Davis said. “Me and Coach Crean had countless talks about me being low. That obviously works for me. Just being active on the defensive end. Defense really works for us. Being active on the defensive end leads to easy buckets on the offensive end.”
Davis headlined a nice night for IU freshmen, who accounted for 31 points. Davis led that charge with 15, while Devonte Green added 10 and Curtis Jones chipped in six.
“The young guys continue to get better and better,” Crean said.
So, too, does this Indiana team — the team Crean believed he had all along.