NEW YORK -- The team won't come right out and say it, but it's hard to dispute the notion that Indiana would have no chance to beat No. 4 Kentucky on Saturday if the Hoosiers had not beaten Pitt on Tuesday night.
The Hoosiers still are looking at a monumental challenge Saturday at Assembly Hall in Bloomington. But to pull off a major upset in UK’s first true road game of the season, the Hoosiers had to enter the game with some sort of confidence.
They have plenty now after holding off the Panthers 74-64 in the nightcap of the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden.
The young Hoosiers whiffed on all three games in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off Classic, including losses to Boston University of the America East and a George Mason team that is currently 4-5. The other loss was to a likely NCAA tournament team in Ole Miss, and falling to Maryland at home in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge wasn’t a confidence killer, either. But the Hoosiers had to beat someone from a power six conference before Kentucky comes calling this weekend.
“Oh man, we were begging for it,’’ IU point guard Jeremiah Rivers said. “We’ve been working so hard to get a win. We needed this win so badly. We needed it for our confidence, for our sanity.’’
Indiana coach Tom Crean looked like he was running for the Senate after the game, shaking hands with the Hoosier fans, who were clearly louder than their Pitt counterparts at MSG. He brought in his fellow politician/brother-in-law Jim Harbaugh. The Stanford football coach delivered, according to Crean, an unbelievable halftime speech that had the Hoosiers as energized for a half as they’ve been this season.
Crean even said No. 2 Kentucky was calling Saturday. It’s actually No. 4.
“I lied, but by Friday night, they may be No. 1,’’ Crean said. “They’re the real deal; as much talent on the floor as anybody we’ll see.’’
Crean said Saturday’s game against the Wildcats isn’t the Hoosiers’ season. And it’s not. No one expects the game to be close, let alone a win. What Crean needs to see from this crew -- what he saw Tuesday from Verdell Jones III (7-of-13 for 20 points), Christian Watford (18 points) and Rivers (a solid floor game) -- is progress.
The Hoosiers defended the Panthers well as Nasir Robinson went 0-for-7 inside and Pitt shot just 32.3 percent for the game.
As for Rivers, who was nursing a pinched nerve in his back, Crean isn’t concerned about him hanging with Kentucky point guard John Wall.
“If he’s healthy, he’ll do fine,’’ Crean said. “Jeremiah is one of the fastest guys in the country. But you’re not guarding John Wall with one person. You need team defense, transition defense and it has to be as good as it has been. We’re going to have to have a Michigan State times two effort on Saturday.’’
Rivers said he’ll be ready to play Saturday and that he and Wall will be going up and down the court in a “track meet” since they’re both “speedy and athletic.’’
What the Hoosiers need more than anything, though, is a rocking Assembly Hall. Crean said he expects it to be as loud as it has ever been.
* Pitt’s Ashton Gibbs took 25 shots to score 25 points. Jermaine Dixon, the only starter back from last year's Elite Eight team, played in his first game of the season after sitting out with a broken foot that was surgically repaired twice in the offseason. Dixon was limited to 13 minutes and missed both shots he attempted.
Gilbert Brown, who should be a solid scorer for the Panthers, will return from academic suspension on Dec. 19. Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said Brown hasn’t been able to practice during his academic suspension. Clearly, though, the Panthers will be better once Brown and Dixon are at full strength.
Pitt now has three straight home games against Kent State, Mount Saint Mary's and Ohio before opening Big East play against DePaul on Dec. 28.
“I think we’re going to be good,’’ Gibbs said. “Gil can knock down shots. Jermaine is a great penetrator and playmaker for this team. If we start to defend and get stops, the offense will come.’’
Still, the Panthers will have to get more inside, something that was a given for them in previous years with DeJuan Blair. Robinson and Gary McGhee combined to shoot 10 percent (1-of-10). Freshman Dante Taylor came off the bench and was 4-of-4.