Thanksgiving break was everything but a break for Indiana basketball. The Hoosiers suffered their first home loss in November under Indiana coach Tom Crean on Monday to Eastern Washington and in their victory against UNC Greensboro, their lead was cut to six in the final minute.
The road doesn’t get any easier for the Hoosiers.
Pittsburgh (4-2) will square off against Indiana Tuesday night at Assembly Hall in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
While Pittsburgh’s trip to Bloomington is its first since 1941, it’s an opponent with whom Crean is very familiar. He was an assistant at Pittsburgh for a season in the mid ‘90s and he’s 6-3 against the Panthers in his career after facing them in the Big East when he coached at Marquette.
Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon has a consistent blueprint, Crean said Monday, and it doesn’t matter what players are on his roster.
“They’re going to be hard-nosed, tough, physical, aggressive, and they’re not going to beat themselves,” he said. “They are tremendous at execution.”
Pittsburgh’s mentality is to be dominant on the boards and aggressive on defense, and to play inside-out on offense, Crean said.
The Panthers are among the top 30 teams in the country in offensive efficiency (108.8, 15th), offensive rebound percentage (39.7%, 27th), and three-point percentage defense (24.7%, 20th).
Similarly to Indiana, Pittsburgh is still finding itself. The Panthers played their last four games in Hawaii, where they were upset by Hawaii, lost to No. 15 San Diego State and then demolished Kansas State.
Pittsburgh has had to adjust to life without two upperclassmen who would play prominent roles in its rotation.
Dixon announced in November that redshirt junior forward Durand Johnson was suspended for the entire season and senior guard Cameron Wright, a projected starter, is sidelined until Christmas after suffering a broken left foot in September.
In their stead, 6-foot-9 sophomore forward Michael Young has established himself as the team’s most dangerous offensive weapon. He is averaging a team-high 14.7 points and 8.3 rebounds per game, including more than four offensive rebounds per game.
“Michael Young is a hard matchup for anybody, but especially for us,” Crean said.
Crean said that when he studied Pittsburgh’s game film earlier this year, he could tell that Young was on the cusp of being a great player.
“His statistics and the way he’s played definitely show that,” he said.
Young is shooting 59 percent from the field, he rarely commits turnovers or fouls, and he already recorded a 27-point, 15-rebound double-double this season.
Pittsburgh’s starting big man will match up against Indiana junior forward Hanner Mosquera-Perea, who has been inconsistent this season.
“We need Hanner to do everything he’s capable of,” Crean said. “We need more from the front line.”
Indiana, who was sixth in the country in rebound margin last season, has been out-rebounded in half of its games this season and has struggled keeping opponents out of the paint.
If Mosquera-Perea, who is averaing just shy of 23 minutes per game, isn’t the answer in Indiana’s frontcourt against Pittsburgh, then forward Troy Williams, Collin Hartman and Emmitt Holt will have to play big and man the paint for the Hoosiers.
All three are in the midst of mini individual redemption stories. Hartman tore his ACL days after last season ended but made a lightning fast recovery to earn a spot in Indiana’s rotation. Holt and Williams were suspended for four games apiece earlier in the season and are beginning to integrate themselves in the flow of the team’s offense and defense.
Crean said the only similarity between Hartman’s play last season and this season is his face.
“We’re talking about a guy that really shouldn’t be playing at the athletic level that he’s playing because he’s coming off this knee surgery,” he said. “Collin is one of those guys that could do whatever we need him to do right now defensively.”
Similarly to Indiana’s matchup against then-No. 22 SMU, Tuesday night’s game is one that will carry more weight than most of the Hoosiers’ non-conference games. Not only could it have potential postseason implications for both teams, but it may help decide whether the ACC or the Big Ten—arguably the two best conferences in college basketball—is the king of the land.
“But arguably the two best leagues in the country going at one another and everybody takes notice that follows college basketball,” Crean said. “So I think it’s a big deal.”