IU prepares for hot-shooting Evansville team

Indiana’s two days in New York gave the Hoosiers the clearest picture to date of who they are and how they can become what they need to become.

In a weekend plus full of self-scout film-watching in between Friday’s 59-58 loss to Connecticut in the finals of the 2K Sports Classic at Madison Square Garden and today’s 8 p.m. game against Evansville in Assembly Hall, IU coach Tom Crean saw a team that while talented, is still overly eager and procured evidence that he could use to show his players what can go wrong when they try to do too much.

Turnovers have been a problem for the Hoosiers (51) in general, as they’ve given the ball away an average of 15.8 times per game so far this season, but they were particularly painful in the UConn loss. Indiana finished with 19 turnovers in that game, all the more critical in a one-point game.

“The biggest thing you try to get across to a team is that every play matters,” Crean said. “Every possession matters, It sounds so corny, but it’s absolutely true. … The turnovers in the first half were absolutely excruciatingly painful for our game. … How we played put us in a hole. We had to get a lot better in the second half. We did, but how we played in the first half really hurt us.”

That led to a loss and in a potentially resume-boosting game that the Hoosiers easily could have had, but it also adds credence to some of Crean’s teaching themes.

“There is a lot of room for us to improve the tempo offensively and defensively that we want to be able to play at,” Crean said. “Certainly, there’s a ton of room for us to improve our ball-handling, our ball-security, our decision making, and we need to cut the turnovers down. Like I’ve told them, we don’t want to play slower, we want to play even faster, but we want to play with more intelligence, better decision making and play just a little bit simpler. When you have young guys, they don’t understand the difference between the single and the home run. I think we’re in that ballpark a little bit right now. We’re trying to show them every bit of film and make every example and do everything we can possibly do to help make it easier for them. I think they’ll find out the better your fundamentals, the easier your decision making becomes, the more you slow down a little bit … but the more the game can speed up.”

Crean expects today’s game to provide teaching moments as well, but more on the other side of the floor. They face an Evansville team that is averaging 90.2 points per game in first five games. The Aces (5-0) have yet to be held under 84 points in a game this season and they’re shooting a remarkable 56.6 percent from the field and 52.7 percent from behind the arc, ranking second and first in Division I respectively so farin those two categories. They’re also shooting 79.8 percent at the free throw line and averaging 32.6 free throw attempts per game. It’s a small sample size, but they currently rank 22nd in the nation in offensive efficiency, averaging 112.4 points per 100 possessions.

“This is one of the best offensive teams to come in to Assembly Hall in some time,” Crean said. “This is the best Evansville team that we’ve seen personally since we’ve been here. Their start, their scoring average, their offensive abilities with shooting the 3, getting to the foul line, their field goal percentage is tremendous.”

That’s especially impressive considering that the Aces were hit hard by graduation. They lost four of their five leading scorers from last year’s 21-15 team including guard Colt Ryan, the school’s all-time leading scorer. However coach Marty Simmons, a former Indiana player, has kept the group from slipping, using a complicated motion offense to get looks for his shooters.

“They run a lot of sets,” IU sophomore point guard Yogi Ferrell said. “They’re a very disciplined team. … We’re going to have to get out on shooters. We’re going to have to stay down on shot fakes. It’s basically just going to be a defensive mindset.”

Especially when dealing with sophomore guard D.J. Balentine, whom several of the Hoosiers know well. Balentine starred at Kokomo High School where he scored 1,280 points and averaged over 18 per game as a senior, earning honors as an Indiana All-Star on a squad that also included Ferrell and forward Jeremy Hollowell.

The 6-foot-2, 210-pounder averaged 8.1 points per game last season, but this year he’s played out of his mind. He ranks fourth in the nation so far with 29.6 points per game, but perhaps more impressively, he’s the most efficient player in the nation among players who have been used on at least 24 percent of his team’s possessions with an offensive rating of 147.1 according to KenPom.com. He’s 41-for-69 from the field (59.4 percent), 15-for-23 from beyond the 3-point arc (65.2 percent) and 51-for-54 from the free throw line (94.4 percent). And on top of all of that, he’s also second on the roster with 3.8 assists per game.

“He’s a lot more poised, I’d say,” Ferrell said. “He’s better with his feet in getting his jump shot off pretty quickly. I noticed that, and I noticed that they run a lot of sets for him. He gets squared up to the basket to shoot the ball. We know we’ve got to get through those screens, deny it or just not let him get as many touches.”

Said Crean: “Balentine, his numbers are just X-Box numbers. … He’s mixing it up, he’s going both ways, right and left, he’s got the pull-up, he’s got the floater, he’s doing a great job of getting fouled. He’s got quick feet and his release looks the same every time.”

And Balentine is just one of four scorers averaging double figures while shooting over 50 percent from the field. Sophomore guard Adam Wing is averaging 13.6 points per game, shooting 67.7 percent from the field, 6-for-8 from the 3-point line and 20-for-22 at the foul line. Point guard Duane Gibson averages 11.0 points, 7.0 assists and 5.0 rebounds while shooting 60 percent from the field. Swingman Blake Simmons is averaging 11.8 points per game and shooting 52.6 percent from the field.

“I think it’s going to put a ton of pressure on us as a young group to go against that type of movement offensively,” Crean said. “Frankly, it will be great for us to do it.”