The game wasn’t yet two minutes old, and IU Coach Tom Crean was already ?concerned.
“Hey, take away the middle,” an exasperated Crean yelled down the court.
IU listened. What happened from there was just that — Pittsburgh finished with 25 offensive rebounds, but IU rode 48 points in the paint to an 81-69 victory in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
Crean had repeatedly stressed the importance of rebounding against Pittsburgh, calling the Panthers one of the country’s premier teams on the glass.
On Tuesday, IU allowed those offensive rebounds but kept the overall margin close — 36 rebounds to Pittsburgh’s 44.
“Our numbers weren’t reflective of how hard we worked on the backboards, but the points in the paint certainly were,” Crean said.
He added that much of his team’s success in the paint came by way of unlocking Pittsburgh’s 2-3 zone.
In recent seasons, IU has struggled to score against zone defenses. IU’s 2013 NCAA Tournament loss to Syracuse is the most prevalent example. On Tuesday, the Hoosiers appeared unfazed by the Panthers’ zone, finding their way to the basket with ease.
Crean said his team’s willingness to move the ball and the threat of outside shooting were the keys to finding success against the zone.
The extra passes worked. IU, the nation’s 208th tallest team, according to kenpom.com , scored 48 points in the paint against Pittsburgh, who ranks No. 19 in height.
“Tonight their zone was extended,” Crean said. “We were able to get it inside because of that extension, and that’s where having really good shooters comes in. They couldn’t stay back at the three-point line because of those guys...The ball never stopped all night.”
The emergence of freshman forward Emmitt Holt helped the Hoosiers dominate the interior.
In 19 minutes off the bench, Holt scored a team-high 15 points on 6-of-6 shooting, adding five rebounds and two blocks.
Only three other Hoosiers scored in double figures, with freshman guard James Blackmon, Jr. and junior guard Kevin “Yogi” Ferrell tallying 13 and 11 points, respectively. Sophomore forward Troy Williams scored 10 points.
Freshman guard Robert Johnson once again contributed aside from scoring, adding nine assists and three rebounds to his six points.
On the defensive end of the floor, IU used a zone defense of its own to stifle Pittsburgh.
With leading scorer Michael Young relegated to the bench because of foul trouble, the Panthers’ offense slowed to a crawl in the first half.
Pittsburgh shot just 36 percent from the field.
Johnson said it was a change in effort levels that made IU’s defense so effective tonight.
“I think it all started when we picked up the intensity,” he said. “That’s one thing we talked about, coming out early and setting the tone as far as defensive intensity.”
Crean said he’ll use the win as a teaching point, but he doesn’t believe it’s a sign his team has turned a corner.
“I don’t know if you can say that with youth,” Crean said. “I think you keep holding them accountable. I think they see it more and more.”