Thursday, February 9, 2012

Hoosiers Poised to Dictate to Illinois

In college basketball, as in life, you have those who dictate and those who submit.

Now that Indiana reaches the home stretch of its season, with seven games that will determine how special this season is, and whether it can be a top-four NCAA tourney seed, it needs to dictate.

That starts tonight with Illinois, a 16-7 team that only occasionally plays to its talent. While a lot of that has to do with the power and parity of the Big Ten (the Illini, like the Hoosiers, are a .500 league team), inconsistency has been a problem.

IU has to make them pay for that.

Guard Jordan Hulls, for one, understands that.

“It’s on us to play our own game, don’t let them dictate what we do,” he said. “They are very versatile –- can run and slow it down. They are very big and athletic. A lot of guys can shoot the ball.”

Illinois shooters start with guard Brandon Paul, who averages 15.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.1 assists. His career-high 43 points sparked the Illini to a 79-74 win over Ohio State last month.

Sophomore forward Meyers Leonard leads the Big Ten in blocks (48, 11 more than anyone else), is third in shooting (58.2 percent) and rebounds (8.0), and averages 13.3 points. Guard D.J. Richardson averages 12.2 points. Forward Bertand Joseph is fourth in the Big Ten in shooting (58.0 percent).

The Hoosiers have shooters of their own, in fact, they have the Big Ten’s two best three-point shooters in Hulls and Matt Roth. They also have resolve steeled from a recent stretch of losing 5 of 7 games, four of those on the road. Four road losses have come against ranked teams -– Michigan State, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan.

That stretch, Hulls said, plus the big-time victory at Purdue last Saturday, has steeled them for what remains.

“Road wins are hard to come by in the Big Ten,” he said. “Being able to win at Purdue and Penn State, we really feel like that’s going to help us. It’s the big Ten and anyone can beat anyone.”

That includes Illinois. To win this game, which IU is promoting for a “White Out and Loud Out” (coach Tom Crean wants it so loud the Illini won’t be able to think), means playing as if the Hoosiers were desperate more than confident.

“Everyone is going to come into Assembly Hall and try to take us down and get the win here,” Hulls said. “Everyone is going to attack us. We’re going to get everyone’s best shot. We have to prepare ourselves for that and get ready to play.”

Preparations include practicing with Victor Oladiop and Remy Abell as primary ballhandlers given the uncertain status of guard Verdell Jones, who is still recovering from a bruised right shoulder injured last week at Michigan.

“It’s going to be really tight,” Crean said about Jones’ availability. “I won’t say that he won’t play. I’m not being evasive. We’ll see how he continues to heal, but he’s done very little.”

Without Jones on Saturday Oladipo had a career-high 23 points and Abell had a career-high 13 points. Both are likely to get shots at point-guard-like roles against Illinois.

“It’s the decision making,” Crean said. “We were very low on turnovers (against Purdue; the Hoosiers had 11). That’s key. If you’re locked in and you’re focused and you’re asking guys to do things they don’t normally do, the simpler you can keep it, the better.

“What we’ve tried to do this week is make sure that we’re building situations that could come up with different guys handling the ball. How do we react to those? That’s the situational part of it.

“We try to project – ‘We can go to this; they can try this; they’ve done this in the past.’

“It gets you ready for the game. It keeps you more ready for the long term of the season. It keeps your guys focused, keeps changing it up, keeps challenging them to do different things. But at the same time, when you’re coaching the game, you want to keep it as simple as possible because they haven’t done a lot of those things.”

Here’s the simple Hoosier bottom line -– win at least five of these last seven games and they position themselves for a potential Sweet Sixteen run by virtue of a high seed.

Sometimes being a dictator is a very, very good thing.

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