Tipoff: Indiana at Michigan, 4 p.m. today
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BLOOMINGTON – Share the Big Ten title?
Are you nuts?
There's no universe where Indiana would be satisfied with a shared conference championship. Not when it's facing its second chance to do it right by winning it outright. Not when the Hoosiers have a chance, once and for all, to nail down a NCAA tourney top seed.
In other words, beat Michigan today.
“We want to win it outright,” guard Jordan Hulls said. “That's why we're focused on this game. If we do what we're capable of doing, we'll be fine. We have to move the ball. We have to bring our defense and play unselfish.”
Second-ranked Indiana is 25-5 overall and 13-4 in the Big Ten. If it beats No. 7 Michigan (25-5, 12-5) today, it wins its first outright conference title since 1993. If not, it will share the championship with the Wolverines and, perhaps, Michigan State and Ohio State, who also have games today.
The Hoosiers blew a chance to have it all by themselves when they lost Tuesday night to Ohio State at Assembly Hall. The fact this will come down to the regular season finale fits a program that struggled in coach Tom Crean's early years to overcome NCAA sanctions.
“Nothing has been easy for the seniors,” Crean said. “Nothing about this has been easy. Going on the road has not been easy. Building this (program) up has not been easy. You might want it easy, but nobody built in this program knows what to do with easy.
“We've got to continue to stay locked in and make sure (the Hoosiers are) confident. They've earned earned the right to be confident.”
A Cream 'n Crimson victory starts, but certainly doesn't stop, with turnovers. IU only had 12 against Ohio State, but seven came in the second half, several down the stretch to snuff out a Hoosier rally.
“Don't get sped up and play at our speed,” Hulls said. “It's pretty simple.”
Indiana has lost two of its last three games. Crean said it's not a "rut" as much as some bad "pockets" of play that are costly given the quality of the Big Ten competition.
"Because the teams are so good in this league, plays get magnified," Crean said.
The struggles, forward Cody Zeller said, had nothing to do with fatigue from a grueling Big Ten schedule.
“We're not playing as well as we're capable of,” Zeller said, “but it's not fatigue. We've got to get back to the things we were doing that make us successful.”
Michigan is planning on doing everything to prevent that. That includes a “Maize Out” Crisler Arena where fans will be encouraged wear maize-colored clothing. They also will be given clappers to ratchet up the noise.
Michigan is 17-0 at Crisler Arena this season. It is the only Big Ten team to have not lost at home.
“It's always tough to win on the road,” Zeller said. “It will be a hostile environment. It's tougher to hear plays on the road. But we're a mature group. We can deal with it.”
If you like extra drama, consider the egg comment. ESPN The Magazine's Jordan Brenner related a pregame speech delivered by Michigan assistant coach Bacari Alexander just before the Wolverines played at IU last month.
According to Brenner, Alexander showed a rock that, he said, symbolized Michigan's resolve. He then showed an egg with an IU logo on it.
“Our opponent, they think they're solid, too,” Alexander reportedly said. “But I see them more like an egg -- hard on the exterior, but once you break through, what do you get?”
The players shouted yolk, then proceeded to lay a game-opening egg. The Hoosiers jumped on them early then hung on for an 81-73 victory.
That comment, Hulls said, is of no relevance for this game.
What is relevant? What are the keys to an IU victory?
Here are Crean's thoughts:
“There's no question it starts with ball screen defense. They use it so much. They do a great job there. They're a very well-balanced team. You can't get away from what (point guard Trey Burke) does, but look at what (guard) Tim Hardaway does. It's astonishing the lack of attention that young man gets.
“We have to defend the three. And the thing that was big when we were playing well, and hasn't been when we've struggled, is rebounding. We can't give them extra offensive possession. On offense we have to make sure our foot is on the gas pedal.
“We've got to be diligent in the half-court (offense). (Opposing players) are sliding around looking to draw a charge. That's what we'll deal with. We want to play fast, but we don't need to have people slide into us.”
Here are associate coach Tim Buckley's thoughts:
“We've got to take care of the ball,” he said. “We've got to get stops and rebounds. We've got to do a good job in transition. They're a lot like us in that they can turn a defensive rebound into a basket. We have to play transition defense, and when I say that, it means more than getting your point guard back. You've got to get all five guys back. Stop them from going down hill. They change the end of the floor very quickly.”
As far as Big Ten MVP speculation between IU guard Victor Oladipo and Michigan guard Trey Burke, Oladipo said he's not thinking about it.
“Not at all. We're trying to win a game. If we don't win, we can't be successful. These guys are ready to play. I'm looking forward to it. I can't wait till tipoff. These guys feel the same way.”
Oladipo and Zeller are among the 15 finalists for the Wooden Award, given annually to the nation's best player. So are Burke and Ohio State's Deshaun Thomas, the former Bishop Luers standout.
“If the team wins,” Zeller said, “individually you can get what you want. That's what I live by. If the team wins and I have no points, I'm fine with that.”
Added Oladipo: “If we don't win, I won't be recognized. It's a team effort. With the team, I wouldn't be successful. We have to play together.”