Tipoff: Indiana at Purdue, 8:30 p.m. Wednesday
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BLOOMINGTON -- In the end, you've got to have fresh legs.
Yes, as Indiana goes full bore into a week that could make or break its Big Ten title chances, execution is a must, mental toughness is crucial and, for goodness sakes, rebound, defend, limit turnovers and make shots, but the Hoosiers must sustain 40 minutes of high-level energy, and perhaps more.
In other words, fatigue matters.
IU (18-2) won a physical battle against Michigan State last Sunday. It will face similar challenges Wednesday night at Purdue (11-9), and Saturday night against No. 1 Michigan (19-1).
The conference stakes are high. The Hoosiers and the Wolverines are tied for the Big Ten lead with 6-1 records, with Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin right behind with two losses. The Boilers are within range at 4-3.
Coach Tom Crean wants his guys prepared, but he doesn't want preparation to produce exhaustion. So he's dialed back the length of practice while not easing up on the mental demands.
“What we've done is we've started to back off the practices a little earlier than we did last year,” Crean said. “We've backed off for the month of February. Plus, we've been practicing hard and well. We're getting a lot done.”
Under Crean, the Hoosiers have always practiced hard, even during the day of games. Shoot-arounds resemble full-scale practices. There is plenty of movement and energy, which is what you'd expect from a never-stay-still coach.
Still, you can only do this for so long. It's why distances runners taper as they approach their big events. And given what the Hoosiers will face, not only this week, but the rest of the Big Ten season (February's gauntlet of a schedule includes trips to Illinois, Ohio State, Michigan State and Minnesota), they have to be at their physical best. Shorter practices are one way to help.
This is normal at every program. November's three-hour practices become February's 90-minute sessions. Crean has just moved up the timetable.
To make up for reduced on-court time, the coach puts an even bigger emphasis on mental preparation.
“That means making sure those film sessions are really good and thorough,” Crean said. “That's the only way to do it.
“It's not as much about the taxing of the bodies. We're not going that long. It's about the mentality part of it. That's what I worry about.
“There's never a day you're not game planning. We're game planning right now. But we're staying in the skill improvement as well. You can't lose sight of that.”
Short practices don't mean fewer things to learn. Crean packs the same amount of information into smaller time windows, which means players must pay attention. He constantly adds plays, adjusts defenses and, in essence, looks for new ways to do things, even if that sometimes means reverting to old ways.
“When we add offense,” he said, “we sometimes go back to the old Marquette playbook.”
No Hoosier buys into that more than junior guard Victor Oladipo, which is among the reasons why he was named Big Ten player of the week on Monday.
In victories over Penn State and Michigan State, Oladipo averaged 20.0 points, 6.5 rebounds, 4.5 steals, 3.0 assists and 1.5 blocks. He shot 63.2 percent from the field. It was his first such honor this season and the second of his career.
“I'm happy for Victor,” Crean said. “He deserves it. He's had a great year and certainly had a great week. He continues to be a model of improvement and what we want the program to stand for -- that no matter where you're at, you can always get better.
“It's a constant thing. That's exactly what he's doing along with his teammates. He's a product of all the work that he puts in -- not only in what's required in practice and weight lifting and film, but what he's done on his own. He's reaping the benefits of that with a lot of room for improvement.”
Oladipo's big week helped boost IU from No. 7 to No. 3 in the rankings, behind Michigan and Kansas.
A big key for Indiana this week is free throw shooting. The Hoosiers have been good, but not great. They lead the nation in free throws made (406) and attempted (558), but they've also missed more than anybody in the Big Ten other than Minnesota. Their accuracy has taken a hit in conference play.
For the season they lead all teams at 72.8 percent. In Big Ten play they rank fifth at 67.3 percent. Illinois leads at 74.4.
In Sunday's Michigan State game, IU shot 65.0 percent from the line. Senior guard Jordan Hulls is having his worst ever season from the line, averaging 71.4 percent, well below his career average of 85.7 percent.
What's the problem?
“At times we get lazy and undisciplined with our technique,” Crean said. “That's what it is. That's what we've worked to correct.
“It seems like it's contagious. Jordan is a great example. Miss it and move on. Get into the next shot. He beats himself up so much. Mental toughness is a short memory. You've got to do that in a hurry.
“We spend as much time on free throws, long after practice is over, as we have all year. We do it competitively. We did that (last Friday) and shot 90 percent.
“I'd be way more concerned if we weren't getting the attempts. We're getting to the line.”