Friday, February 11, 2011

With Or Without Watford, IU Faces Big Opportunity

So here is assistant coach Steve McClain, ready to join the Indiana Hoosiers on their trip to Ann Arbor, contemplating the challenge that is Michigan basketball.

Yes, this is the same team IU smacked down in Assembly Hall last month, 80-61.

Check that. It is not the same team.

It is better.

Since that loss the Wolverines have won at Michigan State and at Penn State. They have beaten Iowa (IU knows how difficult THAT is) and Northwestern.

Suddenly they are 15-10 overall, 5-7 in the Big Ten, and pushing toward NCAA tourney bubble status. Whether or not they make the field starts with winning the games they are favored to win. Today that will mean Indiana.

Michigan is not Ohio State, but it played the Buckeyes tough in Columbus, something Purdue couldn’t do. In fact, that’s its only loss in the last five games.

“They’re a young team and they’ve continued to get better as the year goes on,” McClain said. “And when you play someone a second time, people make adjustments.”

The Hoosiers (12-13) have their own postseason hopes and if those hopes are fading, they are not extinguished. They need to win this game and they know it. That means a lot of things, and start with defending Michigan’s three-point attack.

Coach John Beilein loves to put perimeter shooters on the court. When they are hitting, and they’ve been hitting lately, they are hard to beat. The challenge becomes even more difficult when they get a big game from freshman center Jordan Morgan. He had 27 points against Northwestern earlier in the week.

“They’re a team that puts four shooters on the floor almost all of the time,” McClain said, “so you’ve got to, in transition defense and half-court defense, always know where those shooters are and where their shots are going to come from.”

Michigan has three players with at least 103 three-point attempts. IU has one -– Jordan Hulls. The Wolverines have 591 three-point attempts. Indiana has 431.

The most dangerous shooters are Darius Morris, Tim Hardaway and Zach Novak. Morris, the point guard, not only scores at a 15.4-point pace, but averages 7.1 assists.

“In our game here,” McClain said, “we did a great job of being there on the catch.

“They’ve got very good shooters and they’ll get it off quick if you’re not there. In the game here we did a great job of finding them.”

That reflects a strong defensive improvement in the last few weeks. It’s the reason, McClain said, why the Hoosiers have played better.

“We’ve found a way to defend,” he said. “We’ve found a way, when we’ve struggled to score, to continue to defend and rebound, and keep ourselves where we have a chance to win. We’ve continued to get better defending the basketball. That’s helped us have the opportunity to win Big Ten games.”

Some day you figure IU will overcome the burden of road losing. It’s only won one road game in coach Tom Crean’s three seasons. It’s time to change that and this game is the Hoosiers’ best shot at doing that until next year (the other remaining road games are against Illinois, Ohio State and Penn State).

And in some reason for optimism, forward Christian Watford, IU’s leading scorer and rebounder, might be healthy enough to play after missing the last several games with hand surgery. That would be a huge boost.

The word out of Assembly Hall on Watford’s status was that there was no word. Either nobody knew, or nobody was saying.

Regardless, the Hoosiers have a big opportunity. Let’s see if they can make the most of it.

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