Putting together a non-conference schedule is a delicate balance.
On one hand, coaches want to test their team by playing solid opponents who will provide the kinds of challenges a squad will meet in conference play. On the other hand, it's critical to pick up victories not only to build confidence, but also to bolster a team's NCAA Tournament credentials. Finding that balance isn't easy. If a team loads up on cupcakes during the non-conference portion of the campaign, it ends up like anyone who spends all their time with cupcakes -- fat and ultimately empty inside. If a team stocks a schedule with the top teams in the league, players might be worn down by the time league play rolls around.
Heading into the Big Ten season, Indiana is a cupcake connoisseur, with a few trips to the gym thrown in.
The Hoosiers' early work has seen IU win at home over inferior opponents, building confidence for the tough Big Ten season. Oddly, Indiana's early non-conference tests-at Boston College and at Kentucky-produced confidence-building moments, as well, despite the fact IU lost both games by double-digits.
What those early tests have shown is the Hoosiers are starting to grow up. For instance, Indiana trailed Boston College by 14 at halftime, but the Hoosiers rallied to pull within one before running out of gas. The Eagles went on to win by a dozen. Then, at Kentucky, Indiana played the Wildcats tough and still were within six points with just under four minutes to go when UK pulled away for a 19-point victory. Against BC, IU learned what it needed to do to rally on the road. Vs. Kentucky, Indiana learned how to hang with a more athletic opponent for 36 minutes.
Those battles should have the Hoosiers prepped for Big Ten play, although Indiana is still a long way from being a contender in the league. IU boasts a balanced lineup that features a tough matchup on the perimeter (Christian Watford), a developing scorer (Verdell Jones III), a recovering slasher (Maurice Creek) and a gritty ball handler (Jordan Hulls). What's missing is a quality presence in the paint, and although the Hoosiers boast more depth than they have in recent years, Indiana still is lacking in overall length on the floor and explosiveness on the glass.
The Hoosiers, however, are starting to build some experience, and IU hopes to hit the ground running early in the Big Ten season. Watford has all the tools to be a special player, but he has to bring more energy to the court and focus for a full 40 minutes. Creek can be an assassin, but he is still bouncing back from the knee injury that cost him most of last season.
In other words, Indiana is a ball of potential, but the Hoosiers likely won't realize what they can do until later in the season or even next year. In the meantime, IU will win some games it shouldn't, lose some games it shouldn't and build on the confidence and lessons learned during the non-conference campaign.
--Sophomore Maurice Creek's recovery from the shattered patella that ended his freshman campaign has been slow, and he boasts nowhere near the explosiveness he once did. He also hasn't been as aggressive with the ball. In 12 games last season, Creek got to the free-throw line 38 times. Through his first nine games this year, Creek has taken just 16 trips to the line. Instead of going to the rim, Creek has settled for three-pointers, but he isn't making those at the same rate, either. As a freshman, he made 44.8 percent of his shots from beyond the arc. This year, Creek is making just 36.5 percent. The reason? Creek hasn't had the same lift on his jumpers as he did last year, and they are coming up short. Creek's recovery is an ongoing process, but the Hoosiers need him to be more aggressive to avoid disappearing on the court for long stretches.
--Junior Verdell Jones III has been the model of toughness over the past couple of years, playing all 31 games last year and battling through some aches and pains. This season, Jones continues to show some grit, but an ankle injury suffered in early December has him hobbled. Jones hasn't done a great job of taking care of the basketball, and the ankle problem won't do anything to help him concentrate on solving his turnover woes.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Sophomore Jordan Hulls has finally found his comfort level on the floor. Hulls is starting to be more aggressive with the ball in his hands, and his crafty moves and good vision have allowed him to develop into a must-see player on the offensive end. He also is using his range to set up his drives to the basket, and his leadership has become more apparent with each passing game. He hasn't been great defensively, but Hulls clearly is gaining confidence on the floor.
KEY CONFERENCE GAME: Jan. 4 at Minnesota -- Indiana certainly hopes to get off to a hot start in the conference opener vs. Penn State Dec. 27, and putting up a good fight vs. Ohio State in Bloomington New Year's Eve would be nice. But the Hoosiers' first conference road game will set the tone for Indiana's Big Ten season. IU needs to be competitive vs. Tubby Smith's squad, and the Hoosiers have to be ready to play a full 40 minutes of basketball in a true road game for the first time this year. IU faces back-to-back road trips at Minnesota and Northwestern, and the Hoosiers have to come out swinging vs. the Golden Gophers to prove they are tougher than they were last season.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "They believed they were going to win. As much as we, as coaches, believed we could win, and as much as we tried to get them to believe we could win ... that locker room before the game was the locker room I want to get used to. That's what I'm used to as a head coach, and that's what I was used to as an assistant coach. They were driving the energy and the enthusiasm. -- Coach Tom Crean on how the Hoosiers kept battling back vs. Kentucky, a fight that has been missing from the team during most of the last two years.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
2009-10 CONFERENCE RECORD: 4-14, ninth place (tie)
LINEUP BREAKDOWN: Indiana relies on its guards for the bulk of its scoring, with four of IU's top five scorers playing the guard position. Verdell Jones III, Maurice Creek, Victor Oladipo and Jordan Hulls are four very different players, but they blend well in the backcourt. Jones is an aggressive scorer who can knock down the open shot and keeps his teammates involved, but he also can try to do too much on the floor. Creek has the talent to be a slashing scorer, but he's lacking the physical confidence right now to be the player he can be once he is fully healthy again. Oladipo is an athletic freak who loves to play defense and make the highlight play, but he's a freshman who makes freshman mistakes. Hulls is a wicked shooter who sets up his teammates and doesn't make many errors with the ball, but his lack of quickness hurts him on the defensive end.
Christian Watford has made a smooth transition to small forward, and that has allowed him to create matchup problems on the perimeter. He tries to do too much at times and could stand to work a bit harder on the defensive end, but Watford will be the Hoosiers' go-to guy in Big Ten play. Senior Jeremiah Rivers provides athleticism and defense off the bench, but he's not much of a scorer. IU's biggest issue comes inside, where the three-headed monster of Derek Elston, Tom Pritchard and Bobby Capobianco have been inconsistent and haven't provided much on the offensive end. Elston and Capobianco both boast some range, and Elston works hard to score on putbacks. Pritchard has been solid defensively and has good timing as a shot blocker, but he disappears on offense and has lost all confidence with the ball in the post.
Freshman Will Sheehey and junior Daniel Moore can provide solid minutes off the bench, and Sheehey's athleticism keeps him in the regular rotation. Junior Matt Roth is a three-point gunner who is still trying to find his niche with this year's squad.
--Center Guy-Marc Michel has been ruled permanently ineligible to play college basketball due to some issues with his playing with a club team in France a few years back, but Michel continues to work with the team in practices. Although the Hoosiers could use Michel's length during games, his presence at practice gives IU a tool in the paint that it has been lacking since Tom Crean arrived n 2008.
--Indiana consistently goes 10 players deep, and Crean has no plans to cut back minutes for anyone anytime soon.
--Verdell Jones III left Rupp Arena in Lexington on crutches following IU's Dec. 11 loss to the Wildcats, and the ankle injury that limited him vs. UK is starting to become a real issue. He first suffered an ankle injury during preseason workouts, and he likely will be limited over the next few weeks to make sure he's healthy for the Big Ten season.
TSX REPORT: Indiana
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