Indiana Basketball: Tom Crean's Ark and the Genesis of IU Small Ball

Dan Carson@@DrCarson73Trending Lead WriterNovember 24, 2014


Tom Crean eyed the dark clouds on the horizon, smelled rain in the air and knew it was time.

He finished his sacrifice to Dwyane Wade, filled his Dasani bottle with yak blood and returned to Cook Hall. There he gathered his assistants around the burning hearth and told them of his plans.

“Take thine scholarships and go forth unto the country,” Crean said. “Bring back two of each type of guard. Conference play will be here sooner than anyone believes, and we must build an ark and pack it with talent that will save us from the deluge.”

Crean then unfurled his blueprints for the craft—a low-slung wooden vessel of modest dimensions, glued together with zone defense and string cheese. This, he said, would weather the storm. 

“But coach!” his assistants cried. “The ship is too small! The ceilings too low! The centers will never fit in these cabins. How will the big men survive?”

At this, Crean turned from his men and stared deeply into the fire. Gazing intently, a terrifying grin spread across the coach's face.

“Where we're going, we won’t need big men.”

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All aboard, everyone. 

The S.S. Small Ball is leaving the Port of Necessity, and whether we like it or not, we’re all on this freaky cruise together.

So far, the gods have been kind. The 4-0 Hoosiers weathered their first real storms of the season this week, notching a statement victory over Southern Methodist and avoiding a hangover loss to a Lamar team that wouldn’t quite die.

It was a week of rapturous highs and concerning lows. Troy Williams soared and sputtered in his return. James Blackmon Jr. officially Jason Statham-ed the door on college basketball and Crean’s small ball proved that through active hands and sharp shooting, all things are possible. 

Let’s start by going over the small ball, and a phrase Indiana fans should begin working into their lexicons.

Clear Eyes, Quick Hands, Can't Lose

Darron Cummings/Associated Press

A recurring trope you’ll hear this year from college basketball pundits will be Indiana “living and dying” by the three. This is not not true. 

If Yogi Ferrell and Blackmon Jr. aren’t hitting triples against a Big Ten opponent, go ahead and pull the trigger on that second Hairy Bear. Become the liability for society that Hanner Mosquera-Perea is at the free-throw line.

So yes, three-pointers will be a main lifeline for this team, but what falls by the unsexy wayside in the perimeter-focused conversation is the importance of jazz hands in Indiana’s game plan. The Hoosiers are going to get out-rebounded and outmaneuvered in the paint most games, making fast hands a pivotal part of making up for the team’s size disadvantage.

SMU scored 42 points in the paint against the Hoosiers, dwarfing Indiana’s tally of 14. It’s a terrifying ratio on its face, but Indiana managed to erase nearly half of the deficit by scoring 19 points off turnovers thanks in large part to active hands on defense.

Think of it this way: Crean built an ark with multiple players of every type but a true center, and that lack of a genuine big man is the hole in the boat. Water is constantly pouring through the hole, and the only way to bail it is strong perimeter shooting and disrupting passes into the zone defense.

So if Blackmon Jr. and company are keeping their hands up and immolating defenses from behind the arc, Indiana has a fighting chance to stay afloat and play with just about anyone.

JBJ Rising

Darron Cummings/Associated Press/Associated Press

Robert Johnson slowly returned to earth over the last two games, proving that Johnsonism—while a near-religious movement—is indeed founded on a mortal being. 

Conversely, Blackmon Jr. continued his ascension to the outer reaches of the galaxy. He is on a mission to save humanity from corn blight and is slinging bunches of three-pointers through wormholes in the process.

The former McDonald’s All-American is currently the highest-scoring freshman in the country (10th highest-scoring player overall), averaging 22.8 points per game through four contests. The next closest frosh is Ball State forward Sean Sellers, who is averaging 22 through three games.

Blackmon Jr.’s ability to napalm the opposing team’s brush line with three-balls is his most jaw-dropping asset, but his burst in traffic is a lesser praised but vital difference-maker in his arsenal. 

BTN analyst Jim Jackson commented during the SMU broadcast that Blackmon Jr. “doesn’t look that athletic,” but can get to the rim. Phenomenal point, Jim.

It should also be noted that every time Blackmon Jr. hustles on defense, a Purdue grad loses a protractor. After dropping 26 points on SMU, the freshman summed up the attitude Indiana will have to bring in order to win games this year.

“They were way bigger than us, but we were way scrappy,” Blackmon Jr. said in a postgame interview with BTN's Jim Jackson.

Troy Williams’ Linguine Arms

BLOOMINGTON, IN - JANUARY 26: Troy Williams #5 of the Indiana Hoosiers dribbles the ball as Rayvonte Rice #24 of the Illinois Fighting Illini reaches in for an attempt at stealing at Assembly Hall on January 26, 2014 in Bloomington, Indiana. Indiana defea
Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Troy Williams’ limbs are a double-edged sword.

On one hand, they allow him to dunk, block and execute his trademark, this-looks-like-a-bad-idea hook shot. On the other, they get him into foul trouble fast.

The sophomore returned to the court Thursday against SMU and gave the Hoosiers a breath of life from the bench. His length helped Indiana even the size gap against the Mustangs and he contributed 11 points on a night when Mosquera-Perea essentially went out to lunch (three points, zero rebounds and one block in 29 minutes).

But like Mosquera-Perea, Williams sometimes struggles to control his pasta arms, and the result is ticky-tack fouls under the basket. He’s a necessary piece of the defensive and rebounding puzzle. He needs to avoid noodling himself onto the bench.

Other Notes From SMU and Lamar Games

  • Mosquera-Perea jump shots and sudden drops on roller coasters feel exactly the same.
  • Stanford Robinson has giant, childbearing hips. Every time he enters the lane he offers that right hip up for contact, and defenders slam into it like birds hitting a bay window. Seventy percent of his body is hips.
  • I forgot how much Indiana fans love shooters. Jump shots draw excitement, but consistent three-point shooting takes Hoosiers straight to the gushing pleasure domes of Xanadu. Indiana is shooting 46.2 percent from behind the arc this year. They’ll have to ban sweatpants at Assembly Hall if this number holds up.
  • If he can tear his head from the cavernous depths of his own bottom, Emmitt Holt can help this team.
  • If an opposing big gets the ball under the basket, it’s two points. Three if Hanner is down there. Accept and come to grips with this.
  • Tyran de Lattibeaudiere is a force of a nature.  

Indiana hosts 3-1 Eastern Washington Monday night. The S.S. Small Ball will have to contend with a relatively rangy Eagles team that includes 7’1” redshirt sophomore Frederik Jorg. Time to bail that water, boys.

Dan is a Trending Lead Writer for B/R. Once or twice a week during the college basketball season, he turns into an irrational monster that yells at men wearing candy cane pants.