January 16, 2013 at 1:00 am

Passive play puts Illini in tough spot

Illinois coach John Groce is quickly learning the ups and downs of Big Ten play in his first season leading the Illini.

His team is ranked 23rd in the nation but has started just 1-3 in conference, its only win a blowout over Ohio State. Last week he watched his team get rolled at Wisconsin.

"We didn't come out aggressively and that disappointed me," he said. "If you don't come out aggressive on the road and try to feel things out, you're in trouble. By the time we started playing harder it was too late against a good team in that environment and we had already dug ourselves too deep of a hole. We have to figure out a way to come out as aggressively as we have in other games, especially on the road, or it can get real ugly real fast."

Despite following an impressive nonconferenceconference season with a tough Big Ten start, the former Ohio coach has no intention of changing his team's approach.

"We believe in what we do and it's worked," he said. "I've got 19 years of information and we know what the heck we're doing. We're gonna stay the course. The schedule we have this week is the schedule we had before the game Saturday. We're not changing."

Hoosiers excel at both ends

Around the country, college basketball coaches are scratching their heads over some ugly offense.

Scoring is down this season and it has produced some fairly unsightly scores. When Wisconsin won at Nebraska on Jan. 6, the final score was 47-41. In Minnesota's victory over Northwestern on the same day, the halftime score was 17-14.

Why remains up for debate, but at least one team knows absolutely nothing about it — Indiana.

It should come as no surprise considering the Hoosiers are the No. 2 team in the country and average 87.1 points, better than any other team in the nation. They also have five players who score more than 11 points a game, led by Cody Zeller 's 16.6.

However, the reason Indiana is so prolific at scoring has little to do with simply stockpiling a bunch of sharp-shooters.

At least that's the way coach Tom Crean sees it.

"The thing that's helping our team right now is the defense is much better," he said, "which is allowing us to get more baskets off our defense. Our rebounding is improving, which is helping our break get out and the shot selection is very good."

The statistics bear out Crean's theory.

Indiana is giving up only 60 points a game and is 12th in the nation in assists per game. The Hoosiers also lead the Big Ten in field-goal percentage (51.1 percent) and are No. 1 in rebounding.

It's especially gratifying for Crean, who lambasted his team's defensive performance in its only loss of the season to Butler in mid-December. But in the six games since the Hoosiers have scored in the 90s twice and 80s twice while allowing fewer than 65 in five of those games.

Indiana now sits atop the Big Ten with a bit of a break in the schedule before it gets especially difficult later in the season, and it has all parts of its game clicking.

"They're buying into the fact that when we reverse the ball two times, even three times good things happen," Crean said. "When you're scoring a lot of points that means a lot of different people have a chance to be part of it and we have five players averaging 11 points or better.

"Defense, rebounding, ball reversal and shot selection have been the biggest things for us."

Frontcourt D boosts Badgers

The formula at Wisconsin is also a familiar one, but this one is all about defense.

The Badgers are still unranked, but they've won six straight and join Indiana at the top of the standings.

Wisconsin, which has held its past 10 opponents to fewer than 60 points, is sixth in the nation in scoring defense (54.7 points) entering Tuesday's game with Indiana. Coach Bo Ryan credits the senior frontcourt of Jared Berggren , Ryan Evans and Mike Bruesewitz .

"A lot of it has been because of the leadership we're getting from the guys on our front line," Ryan said. "In practice, I see those guys talking to the younger players, see them working to help them. They've helped bring them along so they stay committed to our principles, which is good."

Lightening up

The NCAA is considering relaxing some transfer rules and allowing players in good academic standing to transfer without sitting out a year.

The legislation — which will likely be decided on this week — would allow a student-athlete with a grade-point average of 2.6 or higher to transfer without being forced to sit.

At least one Big Ten coach is unsure of where that might lead.

"That would be interesting," Minnesota's Tubby Smith said. "I assume it would be like a free-agent market, probably. That's what it would be, and that's what the NCAA thinks they need to do if they're going to be student-friendly, and that's their big mantra now. … I would venture to say you're going to see a lot more transferring if you do something like that. They already blame us for the transfers. I wonder who they're going to blame now."

mcharboneau@detnews.com

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Illinois John Groce said his team will have to play with aggression to handle its difficult Big Ten schedule. The Illini have started 1-3 in the conference. / Timothy Easley/Associated Press
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