NEW YORK – Growing up isn’t easy for most. It’s true whether we’re talking about individuals, families, companies, teams or any other entity involving humans. There are hits and misses along the way, some question marks with success and bright spots with failure. Indiana is seeing all of that right now after a tough 59-58 loss in the championship game of the 2K Sports Classic at Madison Square Garden.
Indiana is a young team and a very new team. The Hoosiers lost two high lottery picks from last season’s team in Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller, both of whom departed early. Had they returned, this season might be a little easier, but instead, the Hoosiers have plenty of talent, and young talent at that as they have eight freshmen and six sophomores. They end up having to relay on a sophomore for a lot, and Yogi Ferrell almost carried them to a big win on Friday night.
Indiana had to play from behind a lot of the night in more ways than one. They trailed often on the scoreboard, for starters, but never by much as the game was played within an eight-point window for the first 34 minutes. Every time they seemed poised to rally or get a chance at the lead, Connecticut had an answer.
But they were also essentially down a man as talented freshman Noah Vonleh barely saw the court due to foul trouble. He picked up two fouls in as many minutes to start and played just seven in the first half. Early in the second half, he picked up his third foul and sat one again, and finished the night playing a career-low ten minutes.
“Other guys came in and played well inside as well,” said senior Will Sheehey. “We’d like to have Noah out there as long as possible, but tonight we didn’t.”
It’s from there we find one of the bright spots to come out of this game. While Vonleh had a double-double in each of the first four games, he came up just shy against Washington and was scoreless against Connecticut with just two rebounds. In his stead, Devin Davis was more than serviceable, scoring seven points and grabbing seven rebounds in 21 minutes. Ferrell was a study in toughness all night long, struggling from the field (6-19 en route to 19 points) and turning it over five times, but he kept competing and hit a couple of big shots as the game went back and forth.
“When it comes to maturity and growing up, there’s no question we did that over these last two days,” said head coach Tom Crean. “What we’ve really got to improve, you’re not going to beat anybody when you turn it over this many (19) times.”
Indeed, one thing Crean can be satisfied with is the knowledge that he has a lot of options at his disposal. This team will have more growing pains, but there is plenty of talent and Crean can put many different lineups on the court. Besides Davis, Evan Gordon played well, while Crean knows he can give more minutes to Stanford Robinson, Luke Fischer, Austin Etherington and Hanner Mosquera-Perea than he did on Friday night.
While the personnel is hardly settled, it doesn’t seem to be Crean’s goal to have a settled rotation right now. He wants this team to develop for later and likes having the options he does. Ferrell needs to keep growing as the floor leader of a young team after having a lot more at his disposal last season, and the freshmen need to grow into what the college game demands, especially against elite teams.
“The bottom line is we’re not in a rotation world yet,” said Crean. “We’re trying to put them in situations for the long haul to give them opportunities to play quality minutes at quality times in game-crunching moments.”
Crean also said he feels like this team can play a couple of different ways. He knew coming in that they could play a fast, high-scoring game. Friday night showed that they can compete right to the end in a game that they have to grind out and go without one of their best players for much of the night. While they lost the game, something they don’t want to do or rationalize, with growth they can turn a loss like this into a win in a similar game later in the season, and in the Big Ten there are likely to be games that play out in a similar fashion to this one.
“We’ll learn how to win low-scoring close games like this,” said Crean. “I think it says a lot about where our guys are at already for UConn to play as slow as they did. When a team likes to score and has had over 100 points in three of the five games, and they’ve got to grind it out and they do all the way to the end, I like our upside.”
The Hoosiers have plenty of talent, certainly enough to win games in the Big Ten. They will probably both win and lose some games they shouldn’t along the way. They need to grow up fast, and games like the ones in New York will help if they let them. To do that, Crean said they must stay hungry and humble. Dropping a tough one on Friday night that was there for the taking despite what they had to battle could certainly have that effect.