INDIANAPOLIS — When IU Coach Tom Crean left the press room after Saturday’s 79-72 loss to Notre Dame, senior forward Will Sheehey boiled down Crean’s
Crean talked about how his squad needs to continue to develop an identity with freshmen and sophomores seeing the bulk of the playing time.
For Sheehey, in the midst of his final season as a student-athlete, his demeanor and short responses said it all.
“Second-chance points, turnovers are two things that we have to cut down on,” he said simply. “He’s (Noah Vonleh) got to demand the ball, and we’ve got to throw it to him. It’s as simple as that.”
In IU’s first 11 games of the season, the Hoosiers have shown promise in creating a winning format, though against a non-conference slate. IU won its first five games of the season. Vonleh, a freshman forward, notched double-doubles in his first four collegiate games and fell just a rebound shy with 18 points in a win against Washington in the semifinals of the 2K Sports Classic.
In losses to Connecticut, Syracuse and Notre Dame, Vonleh has averaged just 8.3 points and 4.7 rebounds per game. On Saturday he finished with eight points and six rebounds.
But one of the biggest problems was his five shots and sole free-throw attempt in 21 minutes of action.
During the past six games, Vonleh, IU’s main post presence, has taken just 27 shots after appearing to be one of IU’s best scoring threats early in the season.
Early on Saturday, as the Irish started with a smaller, four-guard lineup and man-to-man defense, Vonleh excelled with two buckets in the first 2 minutes of the game.
Then the Hoosiers fell behind, the deficit reaching double-digits with 6 minutes and 36 seconds left in the half as Notre Dame switched to a 2-3 zone that perplexed the Hoosiers.
The slew of jump shots soon followed — a trend that Crean has said countless times this season can’t happen because of the lack of trustworthy shooting
“We shot too many jumpers to begin the game, but some of that is we’re not demanding the ball inside the way we need to,” Crean said. “We’re not demanding it verbally. We’re not demanding it physically the way that we need to.
“We’re not a team that’s going to be real successful thinking we’re going to shoot a lot of jump shots. We’ve got to get into the lane. We’ve not been real successful when we’re not in the bonus early enough. We’re not successful enough when we’re not dominating the free-throw line.”
Crean said his team came into Saturday No. 1 in the country in rebound margin and one of the top teams at getting chances at the free-throw line, but because the Hoosiers had to be on attack mode from the start — they never led — players didn’t trust their postgame against the zone and instead relied on jumpers.
In the first half, they managed to stay within striking distance with a combination of a post-presence and outside shooting. Sheehey and Gordon got into a rhythm outside and finished the first half with 16 and eight points, respectively, to go along with 16 points in the paint for the Hoosiers.
IU tied the game twice early in the second half — at 47-47 and 49-49 — but Crean said his team couldn’t fight all the way back as it had in their previous losses. He said they had strayed away from what makes his IU squad flourish.
“We made a bunch of runs, but we just couldn’t get all the way over the hump — whether it was a missed shot or a missed play defensively.
“We want to shoot the ball, but we want to shoot the ball after it’s been reversed, after it’s been to the paint, after it’s gone inside out. We did that last year. We just had better 3-point shooters, so right now we’ll get better shooting the ball, but we have to understand how we win.”
In the second half, Vonleh scored just two points and pulled down just three rebounds. The Hoosiers forced just eight fouls and were outscored at the free-throw line by seven points.
With a team that has succeeded so much playing inside out this season, Crean said his team has to continue to progress over the next few weeks before conference play, learning to stick to the simple method that keeps this IU team in games against some of the top competition in the country.
“Any team that’s going to be successful forms an identity. It’s formed over a period of time, and what I’m learning with a very young team is that every time you think you’re taking a step toward that identity, it’s very easy to take a step or two back.”
Follow Nathan Brown on Twitter @nathan_brown10.