Tipoff: Iowa at Indiana, 9 p.m., tonight
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BLOOMINGTON -- Welcome to Indiana's basketball point of no return.
The Hoosiers have lost three straight, four of five and six of eight. They are 14-11 overall, 4-8 in the Big Ten and facing an increasingly restless fan base. Now comes a rugged stretch, starting tonight at Assembly Hall against No. 15 Iowa, that will determine their postseason.
What needs to happen?
“You need to get after it,” coach Tom Crean said. “You need to work at it, in the sense of positive energy, and fuel that. We have a lot of hard workers in here and a lot of guys that put a lot of time and effort into it. You don't want to press too hard. You don't want to feel an outside, unneeded pressure that can wear you down physically and mentally.”
Youth is no excuse by the time you reach mid-February, but the Hoosiers do have three of the Big Ten's five starting freshmen with Noah Vonleh, Troy Williams and Stanford Robinson.
“We are certainly as young as anyone in the league and at times we play that way,” Crean said. “When you are young and you don't have the experience, you don't have the consistency.
“What we have is a consistency in work habits and work ethic, which is good and part of the process. But we don't have that consistency of what it takes, physically and mentally, to win the games. That is where awareness comes in.
“When you have guys that are struggling, sometimes for the first times in their lives, that takes a while to go through that process where they can get that confidence and get that consistency when things are going well for them. That's what we are trying to work through right now.”
Leadership from veterans Yogi Ferrell and Will Sheehey is crucial.
“We just have to do a better job of being consistent and then, when things get tight, we have to have even more internal leadership,” Crean said. “That leads to external leadership when they are out on the court, where guys make their teammates feel like everything is going to be OK and it's going to work out. And then they have to carry that out on the court.”
IU's struggles haven't affected practice, Ferrell said.
"We've been good at putting the past behind us. We come to practice every day with a new energy and that is how we look at each game. Communication and confidence are important for us."
Iowa (19-6, 8-4) is one of the Big Ten's most veteran teams. It has three 1,000-point career scorers in Roy Devyn Marble (1,544), Aaron White (1,208) and Melsahn Basabe (1,091). Eleven players basically go at least 11 minutes a game.
The Hawkeyes like to play fast. That could work to the up-tempo Hoosiers' advantage – at least in theory.
“We have to make it work for us,” Crean said. “We have to take the speed of the game and make it work for us. They can do numerous things, whether it is pressure or man or zone or switching because of the versatility.
“We have to challenge shots. They are as good as anyone in this league at getting out (on the fast break) after makes or misses. There are some very good transition teams in this league, but they are as good as any. We have to be really good there.”
Iowa's consistency reflects its experience. All six of its losses have come to RPI top-20 teams, and those losses have been by a combined 21 points. It has won three straight Big Ten road games, something that hasn't happened since 1998, and four conference road games overall.
“To have won four road games in this league is something we feel really good about, recognizing where the league is right now,” coach Fran McCaffery said.
The Hawkeyes are just one loss behind co-Big Ten leaders Michigan and Michigan State. McCaffery said that isn't a motivator.
“If ever there was a time to focus on the next game, it's this year,” he said. “You can't look down the road or at the standings.”
Marble has played like one of America's best players. He ranks third in the Big Ten in scoring (17.6 points) and is the only player to have scored in double figures in every conference game this season. He's the only active Big Ten player to have totaled more than 1,500 points, more than 425 rebounds, more than 350 assists and more than 150 steals.
White averages 13.2 points. Point guard Mike Gesell has elevated his play. He's averaged 11.5 points and 7.5 assists in his last two games. He leads the Big Ten in assist-to-turnover ratio (3:2).
“We're preparing for a very good Iowa team,” Crean said. “One that is extremely versatile, especially with its depth and the consistency of that depth, with the multitude of skills that they have. They are an excellent passing team. They combine some of the best (offensive) traits with pressure defense. They are very hard to get ready for.”
The Hoosiers won both meetings last year, but Iowa has won five of the last eight meetings, and is 2-2 in its last four games at Assembly Hall.
“(Against Iowa), you have to defend with a purpose because so many guys can score for them," Ferrell said. "We have to play great transition defense. We have to be ready for the challenge.”