Friday, December 10, 2010

Kentucky Just ‘Another Game?’ Don’t Believe It

So here is Matt Roth (pictured right courtesy of IU athletics), an Indiana Hoosier who knows what it’s like to play in Rupp Arena, who was there when the Cream ‘n Crimson got pulverized by what would be an under-achieving Kentucky team.

Those were the pre-John Calipari Wildcats, who while talented, didn’t have anywhere near the NBA-caliber firepower that now seems to be their destiny as long as Calipari runs the show.

IU gets another shot and the odds once again are not in its favor, but you won’t hear that from Roth.

“It will be a great opportunity,” he says. “It’s a very tradition-rich program. We know the fans will be there. It will be a great road test. It will be a lot of fun.”

Fun depends on perspective and for these nothing-to-loose Hoosiers, it’s a motivational weapon. IU is 7-1, with the seven wins coming against creampuff competition, all at Assembly Hall, and the loss coming on the road against Boston College, a good but not great team. It is still growing from the NCAA-sanctioned abyss of the Kelvin Sampson years and this early schedule is designed to teach the team how to win again.

Kentucky, meanwhile, was an early top-10 team that has regained its way after a loss at under-achieving North Carolina. It beat a good Notre Dame squad with the kind of unfair freshman talent that will, apparently, forever be a Calipari trademark. It is 6-2 and ranked 17th.

“We’re a basketball savvy group,” Roth says. “Our players understand what Kentucky is all about. The history and tradition they have there. It’s similar to what we have here.

“We know it will be a hostile crowd. It’s always tough to go on the road.”

Roth talks as if he’s dodging verbal landmines, as if one even slightly inflammatory word could ignite an overwhelming UK response. He doesn’t guarantee wins or provoke controversy. He understands that the Boston College loss could have provided the right lesson for a Kentucky victory.

If the lesson was learned.

“It will help a lot having been on the road for the ACC,” Roth says. “To learn from that, make changes and move forward. To have that test in our back pocket will help.”

Conventional wisdom would demand Indiana patience when it shows up at Rupp Arena. You know, work the defense, pass the ball, cut hard, don’t settle for a decent shot when a good one is a very seconds away.

But that’s not Tom Crean’s style, not with these Hoosiers. He wants to attack the rim, punish the defense, get to the rim if it’s there, kick to a guy on the wing if he’s open.

Crean is an aggressive coach and he likes aggressive offense. He hasn’t yet assembled the talent to make it run, but as every Cream ‘n Crimson knows, the talent is coming.

That doesn’t mean IU doesn’t have the talent to win this time. Forward Christian Watford is a big-time player, guard Maurice Creek (pictured courtesy of IU athletics) burned UK for 31 points a year ago in Assembly Hall (his surgically repaired knee is getting better), guard Verdell Jones always plays better in the second half of the season and Jordan Hulls is one of the Big Ten’s best three-point shooters.

Yes, the Wildcats ferociously defend the three-point line (teams average ? against them), mostly because their long, athletic, quick and good.

“They have drive-and-kick players,” Creek says. “Drive-and-kick players. That’s what they like to do. They rebound. They play hard. They’ve got people who can shoot the three. That’s what they like to do. We’ve got to be ready to go. Be ready to compete.”

IU has had a week to prepare for this game. Kentucky beat Notre Dame Wednesday night. Depending on your perspective, it can give either the Hoosiers or the Wildcats the advantage.

“It helps a lot,” Creek said. “We know what they like to do. They like to drive and kick. That’s what we have to stop.”

The Hoosiers insist this is just another game, one of 13 on the non-conference schedule. They say it so often you almost believe them.


“It’s a rivalry game,” Creek says, “but it’s just another game.”


“It’s a game of competitiveness, but at the same time, it’s another game.”

In fact, it's not another game, and if the Hoosiers want to win, they have to play like it's something really, really special.

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