March Madness: Indiana basketball turnaround inspired by tougher defense
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — In those first days after Indiana's embarrassing early-season loss to Duke, the Hoosiers heard a cascade of complaints.
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So instead of getting bogged down in the debate, the Hoosiers tuned it out, turned inward and found a solution in time to turn things around by winning the Big Ten regular season title and earning their first trip to the Sweet 16 since 2013.
"All negativity is a good thing sometimes and that certainly was for us," senior guard Nick Zeisloft said last weekend. "All the down times we've had this year, even if it's been one half, we've bounced back."
Resiliency is the reason Zeisloft and his teammates are still hanging around Assembly Hall in late March, talking about Friday night's matchup against top-seeded North Carolina in the second East Regional semifinal.
Three months ago, nobody outside this locker room thought it was be possible.
Back then, in early December, a promising season looked like it had all gone wrong.
Indiana had fallen out of the Top 25.
There were shouting matches in the middle of games.
And while the high-scoring offense continued playing well, the Hoosiers appeared to be so inept defensively in that nationally-televised ACC-Big Ten Challenge game that many wondered if the Hoosiers could find a fix quickly enough to salvage the season.
"We tried to focus on each other," senior guard Kevin "Yogi" Ferrell said when asked about the internal conversations following the 94-74 loss in Durham, North Carolina. "I remember Max (Bielfedlt) saying 'We can make a run in this Big Ten if we raise this level of play' and I felt like ever since then, our level of play has changed dramatically."
Bielfeldt, a graduate transfer, understood what the Hoosiers because he had won a Big Ten title and reached the national championship game during his four seasons at Michigan. This season, he became the first player in Big Ten history to win conference titles with two schools.
What really changed?
Fans believe it's no coincidence the defensive improvement came around the same time one of Indiana's top scorers, James Blackmon Jr., went down with what turned out to be a season-ending knee injury in late December.
But there was more to it than just one player.
In Blackmon's absence, coach Tom Crean went with a bigger lineup, making 6-foot-7 Collin Hartman, the primary replacement.
Freshmen center Thomas Bryant, a McDonald's All-American, got healthy and settled in. Freshman forwards OG Anunoby and Juwan Morgan got more playing time and emerged as defensive stalwarts, and together the confidence grew.
Crean also challenged his team to get back to fundamentals for two reasons — they'd win more games and have more fun doing it.
"They like to run, they like to get out and play and you can't do that when you're just trading baskets," Crean said. "I think the defensive energy creates offensive energy, so when you're going at it defensively, it's really hard to slow it down."
The results showed.
Indiana used a record-breaking 28-0 run to rout Michigan in Ann Arbor in February and played the much bigger Boilermakers to a virtual draw in the paint in Bloomington.
The Hoosiers forced Iowa into 13 turnovers in their conference-clinching win at Iowa City and limited Maryland to 41.4 percent shooting in their home finale at Assembly Hall.
Last weekend, against Kentucky, Indiana forced 16 turnovers and limited the Wildcats to 28.6 percent shooting on 3-pointers, which came as no surprise to a team that stopped giving up open lanes to the basket months ago.
"It was us just being relentless against them defensively," forward Troy Williams said after Saturday's 73-67 victory.
And they don't believe they're finished this yet.
On Friday, they'll take North Carolina (30-6), their first ACC foe since Duke, and with a lot to prove.
The Tar Heels were the preseason favorite to win the national championship.
But the Hoosiers have been here before. In 1976, they used a staunch defense to beat Michigan and complete a perfect season in Philly. Five years later, they won Bob Knight's second national title in Philly, against the Tar Heels on the night President Ronald Reagan was shot.
Now they have a chance to add to that Indiana basketball legacy — if they can continue defending at an elite level.
"When you're getting beat a certain way, it's how quickly you can adapt to what they're doing," Bielfeldt said. "I think that's paying off in March, we've learned to adapt pretty quickly."