D key for Hoosiers as road stretch begins

Indiana will test a long-held basketball axiom in the coming weeks.

Does defense travel? The Hoosiers are about to find out.

With six of the next eight games — including four of the next five — set to tip off away from Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, IU will look to lean on its best quality.

That’s what the No. 21 Hoosiers did in Thursday’s win over Illinois, using their toughened defensive approach to outlast the Illini in the opener to the second leg of Big Ten play. It’s what they did at Penn State in early December, clamping down in key moments against the Nittany Lions to claim their first conference road victory of the season a month ago.

And it’s what Indiana will have to do in order to keep their seven-game winning streak rolling through today’s game at No. 2 Michigan.

“Our guys know that if we’re going to be successful, it’s defense-to-offense,” IU coach Archie Miller said. “It’s not allowing easy baskets. It’s rebounding and being able to get down on the other end.”

Through 14 games, Indiana’s defense continues to improve. The Hoosiers are ranked 26th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to advanced statistics web site KenPom.com, and they’ve allowed only three opponents — Duke, Louisville and Butler — to score at least a point per possession.

Now, Indiana will put its defense on the same court as one of the nation’s best.

During John Beilein’s 12 seasons as Michigan coach, the Wolverines have built a consistent and effective offensive profile. They value the ball, shoot well on all three levels and operate with equal parts unselfishness and efficiency.

But it’s the defensive end where Michigan has made its biggest jump during the past season and a half, going from OK to elite in short order. On the way to last season’s national championship game, which Michigan dropped to Villanova, the Wolverines authored the third-most efficient defense in the country. This year, Michigan’s man-to-man defense is ranked No. 2 in adjusted defensive efficiency.

Much of the credit belongs to second-year Beilein assistant Luke Yaklich, a defensive specialist who has given the Wolverines a fresh identity. Michigan opponents are scoring merely 55.1 points per game — the third-lowest mark in the country — and the Wolverines have held a team to 30 points or fewer in 19 of 28 halves.

“They have a way about them right now, a confidence, a swagger that they can beat you with both sides of the ball,” Miller said. “I think that’s what really, really I admired about their team last year is they went on that great run, is just how they kind of just morphed into this tough-minded, really, really sticky defense that also has great spacing and great players on offense.”

Indiana is striving to reach the same place, building confidence and toughness through the narrow, hard-fought victories that have defined the first half of IU’s season.

The Hoosiers’ penchant for playing well in the clutch should help them from here. Even as injuries continue to dent its playing rotation, Indiana is developing its own fingerprint for winning the meaningful games that can propel it into March. Across their last eight wins, the Hoosiers have overcome at least a two-possession deficit.

“I think winning close games like that just builds toughness moving forward, being in those situations,” graduate transfer Evan Fitzner said. “It’s something you can’t really simulate in practice, so I think it’s good when we’ve been in so many of those close games. “Just to have that experience moving forward will help us down the road in Big Ten and then hopefully in March, too.”

For IU, the road to college basketball’s all-important month runs through Ann Arbor, where Sunday’s game will pit a pair of Big Ten title aspirants in a meeting with little margin for error.

From there, things hardly slow down. After a mini bye week, IU returns to action on Friday, Jan. 11 at Maryland, before hosting No. 24 Nebraska. It’ll only be a quick trip home for the Hoosiers, who will be right back on the road for trips to Purdue and Northwestern.

“You have to go and do what we practice every day,” IU senior forward Juwan Morgan said. “You can’t go on the road and do something that you haven’t done every day. We have to play the same way we do at home and bring our own energy on the road.”

With the Hoosiers, it starts on defense.