The Hoosiers took it on the chin in the second half against Kentucky on Saturday. Indiana was outscored 48-32 and allowed a 18-0 run early in the final period that sealed their fate.
After the win over Pitt earlier in the week, I was a little optimistic the Hoosiers would play better against the No. 4 Wildcats. But as the game unfolded, I realized the huge gap IU will have to bridge to become a national championship contender once again. It's not scoring, it's defense and rebounding.
The Wildcats destroyed the much smaller Hoosiers on the boards. All five players on the floor were crashing the boards. UK grabbed 49 rebounds, more than double IU's 24. Their 21 offensive rebounds led to 30 second-chance points. It's a tough stat to consider given IU lost by 17. If half of those second chance points are converted to IU defensive rebounds, the Hoosiers have a chance to win late.
The Hoosiers have some size, but it was nowhere near enough to defend Kentucky. The Wildcats were getting rebounds off missed free throws and three-pointers. Even when there were four IU players under the basket, it seemed Kentucky's players came up with the ball.
This type of play is what I hope coach Tom Crean is building toward. It is the kind of play that typifies Michigan State basketball, which has dominated the Big Ten over the last decade. It's also the type of play that wins games in March and early April. The more chances the Hoosiers can generate for themselves, the more likely they are to win. And on the defensive side, the team that holds its opponent to one shot per possession has the advantage.
I think these Hoosiers can get there after watching this game. They had Kentucky on its heals in the first half, shooting 63 percent, and even though they were down 20 in the second half, the team made a couple runs to get within 12 and try to get back in the game.
Crean had his team playing with confidence, unafraid of the highly-ranked Wildcats. The fact that it took Kentucky more than an entire half to gain control of the game is impressive, given their size advantage.
The Hoosiers also won the turnover battle, but only had one player score more than 10 points. The Wildcats had five players in double figures.
Crean has a long way to go, but it is clear he is making progress. On Saturday I saw the players beginning to play like they belong. They played like they legitimately could beat Kentucky, something we didn't see at all last year. The trick will be for Crean to keep the team's energy level up through the Christmas season and into conference play.