John Rieger; USA Today Sports

Crean, Hoosiers Prepare for Early-Season Challenges

The Hoosiers face several stellar opponents early in their schedule, something Tom Crean has harped on in practice as the season draws closer.

Last year, the Hoosiers began the basketball season with a rollicking 88-49 win against an overmatched Eastern Illinois team in front of a raucous Assembly Hall crowd.

This season's first opponent is not Eastern Illinois.

Indiana will face the Kansas Jayhawks, a team that went 33-5 and reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament a season ago, in Honolulu for the Armed Forces Classic to open the season, part of a brutal early schedule that features matchups against perennial heavyweight Louisville and last year's national runner-up North Carolina in addition to the Jayhawks.

"That's very poor scheduling. I mean, there is no question about that," Coach Tom Crean said with a laugh while addressing reporters at Big Ten Basketball Media Day at the Marriott Wardman Park in Washington. "But, no, in all honesty, that's something everybody's looking forward to."

Crean didn't mince words when he discussed how the early-season slate would test the Hoosiers.

"Our non-conference schedule is going to be ridiculously challenging for this team," said Crean, who is entering his ninth season as head coach at Indiana. "But that's okay because so is the league. And the more experiences that we can get, we're going to go against one of the hardest-nosed, toughest-minded, best-coached teams in the country right off the bat in Hawaii, and really, what it does is it just kind of increases your urgency a little bit in the non-season."

Crean said one of the keys to surviving the tough non-conference schedule will be building the mental toughness for some of the newcomers, including the incoming freshman class and transfer point guard Josh Newkirk, during practice. 

"Every time something gets hard in a practice those reminders come up that those games are on the docket," Crean said. "There's not a day that goes by that I don't reference one of those two teams [Kansas and North Carolina] at least four or five times in something that we're doing. "We've got to do a lot in a short period of time to get ready for games like that."

For the season-opener against Kansas, the players know they will face a huge challenge immediately, but they feel they will be prepared for it.

"When you come out of the gate and play a team like Kansas you have to be ready because you definitely know they will be," said Robert Johnson, a junior guard. "We're just trying to approach every day the same and get better every day. [Coach Crean] has done a good job of reminding us we don't have any time to ease into the season."

Sophomore big man Thomas Bryant, who conference media voted to the preseason All-Big Ten Team, echoed Johnson's sentiment.

"You have to have that mindset where we're playing top-notch teams very soon," Bryant said. "I don't think we need a reminder because Coach [Crean] engraves it in our brains. We all know what we have in front of us and we're ready for the challenge."

Junior guard James Blackmon Jr., who was also named to the All-Big Ten Team in the preseason, said the practices the team has had so far have already prepared them for what they will face when the season begins.

"Our practices are harder than the games," Blackmon Jr. said. "We want to just have a vocal team, everyone talking, and we feel like that will make us successful."

Indiana's marquee non-conference matchup last year was against Duke in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, a game the Hoosiers lost, 94-74. Crean said some of the preparation for early-season challenges this year will be focused on fixing what the team struggled with against the Blue Devils.

"We can't play to not put them at the foul line but we can't be overly aggressive and put them at the foul line in an easy way," Crean said. "We've got to find that level of how hard we play, how competitive we are, but still play smart. That's why really getting our details down in the halfcourt is as important as anything we do."

The Hoosiers now have less than a month to get those details squared away. The season tips off in Honolulu on Nov. 11 at 9 p.m. 


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