To get his players to understand how close they are to a late-season breakthrough, Tom Crean has pointed to the top of the Big Ten standings and asked his roster to look at the names.
Purdue, Wisconsin, Maryland — all three are teams that Indiana took down to the wire before eventually falling short.
“Those games came down to either the buzzer, the last possession or the last two possessions,” Crean said. “So what these guys have got to understand is we didn’t get those wins, but at the end of the day we just gotta figure out how to get over those humps.”
Tonight’s trip to face the first-place Boilermakers at Mackey Arena represents IU’s last opportunity to get over the hump.
Coming off Saturday’s 63-62 win over Northwestern, snapping a five-game losing streak in the process, the Hoosiers have a chance to secure some major momentum entering next week’s Big Ten Tournament.
A run through the conference tournament is Indiana’s only hope for an NCAA Tournament bid, and strong play this week at Purdue and Saturday at Ohio State could provide a useful launching point against a wide-open field.
Turning Saturday’s win into a streak of two, however, won’t come easy in West Lafayette. Seldom does it ever.
“Very difficult place to play,” Crean said. “They’re good. They hit on all cylinders. We’ll make adjustments in our plan. There will be some different things we’ll need to do, no doubt about that, as we’ve gotten a little bit healthier. And at the end of the day, you’ve got to go in there and weather runs. We’re not going to be able to go in there and have periods of time where we’re not getting good looks or we’re turning the ball over.”
That’s been one of Indiana’s biggest problems this season — long stretches of poor, unfocused play that have come back to hurt the Hoosiers in crunch time.
Any lull tonight could be fatal against a Purdue team that has plenty at stake against Indiana.
Coming off Saturday’s 82-70 loss at Michigan, the Boilers can clinch a share of the Big Ten regular season title tonight with a win. Purdue was riding a six-game winning streak until its weekend trip to Ann Arbor, piling victories as Wisconsin, the Big Ten’s other title contender, dropped four of five games to tighten the race.
If Purdue can manage a win over its in-state rival, it would claim its second regular season title in the past eight years. The Boilers haven’t clinched at least a share of the conference championship at Mackey Arena since the 1995-96 season.
“We know what we gotta do coming in there,” junior Freddie McSwain said.
Even as the Hoosiers’ slid hit five games a week ago at Iowa, Crean had at least one area of tangible improvement he could point towards.
Across IU’s past six games, the Hoosiers have the best 3-point field goal defense in the conference, holding opponents to 27.5 percent from beyond the arc. During the same span of games, Indiana’s 42.0 overall field goal percentage defense ranks fourth among Big Ten teams.
“I don’t think you guard the 3 the way we’re doing it and guard the perimeter or the post the way we’re getting better at it if you’re not improving,” Crean said. “At the same time, so much of the field goal percentage defense even to this day gets skewed because of the turnovers. I saw (Dallas Mavericks coach) Rick Carlisle had a great term for this. He calls them the catastrophic turnovers that are unguardable. They really are because there is no way to get back and get them. That’s what’s hurt us some, or our field goal percentage defense or 3-point defense would be even better.”
In recent years, there haven’t been many close games between these rivals at Mackey Arena. The last game there decided by single digits was a 75-73 Indiana win in 2005. Since then, IU has won three games in that venue by an average margin of 21.6 points. The Hoosiers have also lost six games in West Lafayette by an average margin of 15.6 points in that same span.
Now, Indiana will look to avoid another lopsided defeat to the north, creating some important momentum in the process.
“To me, we’re improving,” Crean said. “That’s what we’re banking on. That’s what we’re looking at. We’ve proven we can beat anybody in the country that’s of a high level when you look at the Kansas’ and Carolinas. We can win in this league. We’ve been right down tot he wire with the majority of the teams in this league and we just have to find a way to keep getting over the hump inside of the game.”