For the first time in six years, Indiana will open Big Ten play at home when it hosts Nebraska for a 6:30 tipoff tonight at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall.
It’s the first of three consecutive home games in conference play for the Hoosiers (10-2) and getting off to a good start is critical to successfully defending their Big Ten title.
“You always want to set the tone at the beginning of the season, especially when you’re talking about conference play,” junior guard Robert Johnson said, “so hopefully we can have a really great crowd with a lot of energy and that will help us feed off that and just continue to build from there.”
The energy is what IU coach Tom Crean is most concerned about — that and the less friendly end of the Big Ten schedule.
“I hadn’t thought about (opening at home for the first time in six years),” Crean said. “The only thing I think about is the fact that we’ve got four out of five on the road to end the season.
“… We just need to make sure the energy of the crowd is tremendous. Whether it’s the game management, the music — we should have a larger band with the alumni band — those are the things I think about. I want a team that is full of energy on the court, and one of the great ways you get that is a crowd that is full of energy.”
With this being winter break, tonight’s crowd will consist of less students than usual, but also more first-timers or occasional visitors than usual. Couple that with the basketball game serving as the front end of a doubleheader that wraps up with the Indiana football team’s appearance in the Foster Farms Bowl against Utah following as a watch party on the jumbotron, and Crean believes Assembly Hall can have its usual impact on both the home and visiting team.
“That’s what makes this place such a challenge for everybody else, when everybody’s connected — the team, the crowd, the pageantry of it‚ there’s an energy that just envelopes you,” the IU coach said. “That’s what I get more concerned about than anything else. We just look at it as our next opponent. It happens to be right after Christmas, and you try to cover everything you need to cover with the opponent. I have a tendency to overthink all the other stuff, like when it comes to the crowd, the energy we’re going to need, because it’s always about as a coach, how do you score one more point, right? Anybody that says differently is dealing with fool’s gold. You’d like to win games by large margins every night, but that’s not how it works.”
However, it seems to work that way more often for the Hoosiers, who were undefeated at home last season and have now won 25 straight home games, including an average margin of victory in conference play at Assembly Hall of 15.9 points a year ago.
One thing Indiana will have this year that it didn’t last year is a healthy James Blackmon Jr., who is the leading scorer so far this season at 18.5 points per game. He says playing on the road or at home doesn’t matter, but being at home doesn’t hurt.
“Really, our mindset can’t change at all, but … the crowd here helps a lot, so just that extra energy and juice we can get from them, every bit of it helps,” Blackmon said.
The Hoosiers are also expected to have a healthy Juwan Morgan, as the 6-foot-8 sophomore forward exited last Thursday’s game against Austin Peay with a sprained right ankle, but Crean says that’s not a problem.
“Oh yeah, he’s fine,” Crean said.
Nebraska (6-6) can’t say the same, as the Cornhuskers announced on Tuesday that guard Anton Gill, a Louisville transfer, suffered a ruptured patella tendon in his right knee during a team workout on Sunday evening and will miss the rest of the season.
Even though that hurts Nebraska’s backcourt depth, that remains a strength behind starters Tai Webster and Glynn Watson Jr., who combined to average nearly 30 points per game.
“They have a really good backcourt,” Johnson said. “Their guys like to get to certain spots on the floor, and they have a couple key strengths they use during the game, and we have to do a good job of taking them away if we want to have a chance to win.”
Playing at home is bound to make that just a little easier.