COLUMN: Questions left unanswered

Victor Oladipo (4) and the Hoosiers lost too many physical battles Saturday, in particular allowing Butler far too much success rebounding the ball.

INDIANAPOLIS — Tom Crean began his press conference talking about Indiana’s need at the end of Saturday’s game to switch screens and not allow open shots to Butler. He was then asked by a reporter what went into the decision to keep 7-foot forward Cody Zeller on the bench for the Bulldogs’ final possession, which ended with sophomore Alex Barlow hitting a floated shot over Jordan Hulls, a shot that might have been changed by the presence of a big man around the rim.

Crean replied curtly that he’d already answered the question, explaining when pressed on the subject that his comments about switching screens and trying to avoid mismatches referred in part to that decision to go small at game’s end.

Indiana as one whole team cut a frustrated figure after Saturday’s 88-86 overtime loss to Butler — its coach no less an example than anyone else — and with good reason. The Hoosiers came into Saturday’s game expecting a physical, Big Ten-like test from their neighbors to the north. They got one, and they failed.

To clear the deck: Butler is very good, better than its also-receiving-votes status in both national polls. Indiana is still, as Bulldogs coach Brad Stevens said afterward, a firm Final Four contender, and tortured clichés about exposed weaknesses are as intentionally vague as they are lazy in analysis.

But what happened inside Banker’s Life Fieldhouse on Saturday should give the Hoosiers pause, because it raised questions the Hoosiers could not answer within the space of one game.

Cody Zeller was too often anonymous both offensively and on the glass at both ends, as much because of his own poor play as because he was isolated by teammates. Indiana never appeared to sustain the defensive rhythm that carried it in overtime against Georgetown, or to a heavy victory over North Carolina. Outside of Victor Oladipo and a solid-but-still-below-standard performance at the free-throw line, there was nothing Indiana did offensively that could be considered worthy of its lofty ranking.

But no one statistic better illustrated Indiana’s loss-worthy performance at Banker’s Life Fieldhouse than its inability to stand toe-to-toe with Butler on the boards. The final rebound margin of 40-38 in Butler’s favorite, and the 19-18 edge for the Bulldogs in offensive boards, hardly did justice to Indiana’s poor showing in that corner of the box score.

“We missed some shots,” Crean said. “We missed some free throws. All those things are a part of it. But to me, the big theme for where we’ve got to improve is our rebounding.”

Offensive rebounding percentage is an efficiency statistic, one that measures a team’s ability to grab its own missed shots relative to how many chances it has. While a straightforward stat sheet charts how many offensive rebounds one team pulls in, offensive rebounding percentage reflects on what percentage of its own missed shots a team managed to find the rebound, more accurately reflecting performance by basing it on shooting percentages.

Coming into Saturday’s action, Indiana was 20th nationally in opponent’s offensive rebounding percentage, allowing just 26.4 percent of misses to turn into second chances. Butler on Saturday posted a final total of 48.1 percent, meaning the Bulldogs rebounded nearly half of their own misses, explaining well their 10-point advantages in second-chance points and points in the paint.

“We got outrebounded,” Cody Zeller said, stating simply his team’s primary method of defeat. “There’s a lot of little things we need to figure out.”

Butler being tough and physical and fundamentally sound is no great surprise. These have been traits pinned to the Bulldogs since even before Stevens’ time in charge of the Indianapolis program.

The Hoosiers’ own fundamental flaws, though, were the basic cause of their undoing, and therein lies the concern. Indiana came to its state capitol expecting exactly what it got from Butler, and it couldn’t handle it anyway. Individually, Indiana was almost to a man second best. As a team, it was outhustled. Tactically, Stevens outmaneuvered or outflanked Crean out of timeouts and dead-ball situations, and during crucial periods of the game, as in an 8 1/2-minute stretch of the second half that didn’t include a made Indiana field goal.

Of course, all of this happened in December, in a non-conference game Crean and his players said repeatedly they would build from going forward. One of Crean’s first comments in his postgame press conference, delayed for more than an hour after the final whistle, centered on his team “needing” the kind of game and the kind of environment it had to handle Saturday.

If that is the case — if Indiana learns from this and emerges stronger for it at the start of Big Ten play — then it’s just one loss in December, and the Hoosiers are still a firm favorite for the Final Four.

But that’s going to take more than we saw from this team Saturday afternoon, when the Hoosiers too often lost their “spirit,” according to Crean, too often turned to frustration, and backed down when challenged by a team that never made any pretense about its intentions.

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