Tipoff: Michigan State at Indiana, 1 p.m. Sunday
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BLOOMINGTON -- Will Sheehey refuses to be lured by offensive glory. He is an off-the-bench scoring catalyst who stays on shut-down message.
It's got to be defense. That's been the Indiana theme since last spring, last summer, the fall, and the week that was, and Sheehey ain't budging from it.
“Points don't win game,” the junior swingman said. “It's your defensive effort. When you're active on defense, that's what propels winning.”
The No. 7 Hoosiers (17-2 overall, 5-1 in the Big Ten) seek all the propelling they can get as they brace for their season's most grueling stretch.
On Sunday they host Big Ten leader Michigan State (17-3, 6-1), which is ranked No. 13. On Wednesday they travel to rival Purdue (10-9, 3-3), which pushed No. 2 Michigan hard in a Thursday night defeat. On Feb. 2 they host the Wolverines (18-1, 5-1), who are a win at Illinois away from moving to No. 1. The stretch concludes with a road swing to Illinois (15-5, 2-4) and to No. 14 Ohio State (14-4, 4-2).
The key, Sheehey said, is defense.
“When you play defense, when you talk on defense, when you have that complete defensive effort, you won't lose,” he said. “And if you do lose, you tip your hat and say, 'next game.' I don't think we did that in our two losses. That's what we're working for.”
The results are obvious. Indiana is, in every way, better defensively than last year.
It leads the Big Ten in field goal defense, at 37.9 percent. Last year it was sixth at 44.5 percent.
It is second in three-point defense (28.8 percent) and turnovers forced (13.3). Last year it was seventh in three-point defense (35.5 percent) and 11th in turnovers forced (11.0).
Most importantly, it is fourth in points allowed (61.5) compared to 10th last year (69.6).
“You try to take away some guys' strengths,” Sheehey said. “Some guys like to shoot with their left hand, some with their right. When you watch a lot of film, which is what our team does, you find the tendencies of certain players.”
IU's defense is driven by championship necessity. Last year the Hoosiers ranked No. 64 in defensive efficiency and lost a Sweet Sixteen track meet to Kentucky. All four Final Four teams ranked in the top 10 in that category.
Yes, coach Tom Crean noticed, which is why he pushes for at least three straight defensive stops. More often than not this season, he gets it.
“It's basketball science,” Sheehey said. “If you get a stop, it leads to baskets on the other end.”
In other words, defense fuels offense, a theme heard long and often around Cook Hall.
“I think these guys are really understanding that they'll go as far as their defense and their rebounding takes them,” Crean said.
That will be especially true against a rugged Michigan State team rounding into physical form behind 6-10 Adreian Payne, 6-9 Derrick Nix and 6-6 Branden Dawson.
Crean is starting to taper, in the short term at least, to ensure his players are fresh for this stretch. He had just a walk-through last Monday and “the shortest practice of the year” (just over an hour) on Tuesday.
“We've got a long, hard stretch coming up,” he said. “Every game is going to be an absolute battle. (We wanted) to make sure that we had really good energy and build it over the long haul.”
IU's two-game winning streak, Crean added, provides much needed momentum.
“You want to be on a one-game winning streak constantly. Our guys do an excellent job of looking at each game. They've never played with the intention of the next game being on their minds other than the game that they're in.
“Sometimes when you're older and sometimes when you have a lot of expectations on you and you play in a league like this, you can look at the schedule and loose sight. Those teams get beat.
“You can't get too high or too low. You've got to take each game for what it is. If you spend too much time celebrating one or too much time dreading the result of another, you can get in a slide in a hurry in this league. You can't let that happen.
“Our guys have done a great job. The entire focus will be on their improvement and preparing for Michigan State.”