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COLUMN: The importance of starters

Tom Crean downplayed the importance of his starting lineup Tuesday, but also praised his first unit's performance.

As expected after Jeff Howard started in place of Jeremy Hollowell in Tuesday’s IU win over Evansville, many of the questions in the postgame press conference revolved around that decision.

IU head coach Tom Crean underplayed the importance of his team’s starting lineup when asked.

”One-and-done is too big of a topic in the country right now, and who the starters are is too big of a topic,” Crean said. “To me, it’s always up for debate on the outside, but it’s never up for debate on the inside.”

We won’t get into the one-and-done commentary here, but the comment about starting lineup being overhyped is interesting, especially given Tuesday night’s game. The starting lineup is vital to a team’s success, especially one that sometimes struggles to immediately have a high energy level.

In the most basic of terms, the starting lineup is important to any team, and is always an important topic. There’s a reason Yogi Ferrell, Will Sheehey and Noah Vonleh were on the court to start the game and Jonny Marlin, Andrew Calomeris and Peter Jurkin finished the game. That isn’t meant at all to be a slight to players at the end of the game, but there’s a reason a team’s best players are in the game first.

It’s somewhat strange that Crean would underplay the starting lineup, as he has repeatedly expressed the desire for his teams to get off to faster starts the past two seasons. Especially in nonconference play last year, IU got off to slow starts with some regularity, and on a couple of occasions this season, the case has been the same.

Crean himself boasted that Evansville was 1-for-16 from the floor against his starting lineup Tuesday night. The fact that he pointed out that statistic helps to show that Crean indeed holds the performance of the starting lineup in high esteem. That lineup got Indiana out to a 12-0 lead off the bat to set the tone for the game, which is the essence of the importance of the starting five.

Over and over, Crean and players have talked about having a high energy level out of the gates, so the chemistry and overall energy of the starting five are game-changing factors. Increasing the team’s energy level was what Crean had in mind specifically with Howard on Tuesday night.

Jeremy Hollowell showed an increased aggressiveness coming off the bench Tuesday night en route to a career-high 18 points.

“I get to make those decisions,” Crean said of the lineup. “To me, what I looked at over the last few days was a guy that epitomized what we wanted out there in the form of energy, communication and intensity. I thought he did it better than anybody else.”

Howard did indeed prove why he deserved to start, even though the boxscore might not jump off the page. His screens often led to open looks or led to a pass that created a shot. There was a series during which he perfectly executed a pick-and-roll and scored after getting wide open, and then went down to help force an Evansville turnover.

The decision to start Howard over Hollowell also seemed to serve another purpose, as Hollowell showed a great deal of aggressiveness when he came in of the bench at the 14:31 mark in the first half.

It is the only regular-season game this season during which Hollowell has come off the bench, and he took it in stride. Hollowell scored a career-high 18 points, scoring in just about every way imaginable. He sunk a pair of three-pointers, a few layups and eight free throws.

It was interestingly reminiscent to Nov. 15, 2012, when Crean chose to start then-senior forward Christian Watford on the bench in favor of Sheehey against Sam Houston State. Watford came off the bench, much like Hollowell did, to have a huge game, scoring 23 points. Like Hollowell a year later, Watford did much of his damage from the free-throw line, going 10-for-10. For both, the fact that they shot that many free throws is an indicator of an increased aggressiveness.

Crean knows exactly what he is doing when it comes to tinkering with the starting lineup. Both last year and Tuesday night, he had the luxury to make a lineup change against a somewhat weaker opponent, and he used the change to his team’s advantage. Despite what he said after the game, Crean seems to understand that the starting lineup is nothing to be taken lightly, and has the ability to completely change a game’s path.

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