January 6, 2014 at 1:00 am

Big Ten Notebook

Tom Crean deals with growing pains at Indiana

Indiana coach, Tom Crean, right, has had to cope with the loss of NBA draft picks Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller and veterans Christian Watford and Jordan Hulls. (Doug McSchooler / Associated Press)

Things can change quickly in the Big Ten.

One year, a team can be on top — and struggle the next.

After winning the Big Ten regular-season title and making a run in the NCAA Tournament, Indiana coach Tom Crean has had to deal with the sudden change. The stalwarts of that team — first-round picks Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller and veterans Christian Watford and Jordan Hulls — have given way to sophomore point guard Kevin “Yogi” Ferrell and freshman big man Noah Vonleh.

With senior Will Sheehey as the last bastion of experience in the rotation, the Hoosiers (10-5) have gotten off to an 0-2 start in the Big Ten, including a 73-56 loss to No. 5 Michigan State at Assembly Hall on Saturday. The other conference loss was in overtime at Illinois, one of the surprise teams in the league.

One bright spot for Indiana, so far, is Ferrell, who had a career-high 30 points and five assists against Illinois and scored 17 points against Michigan State. But in the two games, he combined for 10 turnovers.

Along with rebuilding a contender comes the growing pains of learning how to win tight games. Against MSU, when Indiana cut the lead to single digits in the second half, the Hoosiers didn’t take advantage of being in the bonus by being more aggressive in trying to get to the free-throw line, much to Crean’s dismay.

“We’ve got to grow out of understanding how not to take momentum. So we get down six, we get down four, that’s not a time when you’re rarely ever going to be in the bonuses as early as you are against Michigan State, like we were today,” he told reporters.

“When you find something you’ve got, which is important to get to the foul line, then it can’t become jump-shooting time.”

The Hoosiers shot just 12 free throws in the second half and let MSU pull ahead with a career-high 26 points from Gary Harris. Vonleh — who was leading the Big Ten in rebounding (9.5) and averaging 11.8 points — was held to just five points and nine rebounds against the Spartans. For Crean, it’s just another of the growing pains of trying to build on a young team.

“Noah Vonleh is going to continue to get better. No doubt he’s got to become a more demanding presence,” Crean said. “He works too hard on his game. He’s too good a person. He’s got to be a demanding presence and become downright a little selfish.

“And I hate using that term, but I have no better term than to use for him with that, because that’s what he’s got to be around the paint.”

Illini an early surprise

Illinois has continued to impress with an overtime win at home over Indiana in the opener and a victory over Penn State on Saturday.

The Illini (13-2, 2-0 Big Ten) have won four straight and their only losses are to No. 10 Oregon and to Georgia Tech in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.

Against Penn State, a fracas ensued in the second half after Kendrick Nunn bumped into the Nittany Lions’ D.J. Newbill on the way back down the court after a basket. Newbill took offense and appeared to swing at Nunn. The players were separated and Newbill was ejected.

The Illini went on to win, 75-55. They’ll get their biggest challenge of the season, so far, on Wednesday, when they play at Wisconsin. The next stretch of games includes matchups against Purdue, Michigan State, at Ohio State, at Indiana, then home against Iowa and Wisconsin.

By then, they’ll either be firmly in the Big Ten race or relegated to the middle of the pack.

Iowa's tough road

Iowa got a feel for how far it is away from being a serious contender in the Big Ten hierarchy. The Hawkeyes had a chance to make a statement, but fell at Wisconsin, 75-71, Sunday night in a game that they controlled in the first half. Coach Fran McCaffery got two technical fouls and was ejected in the second half and the No. 4 Badgers eked out the victory.

Roy Devyn Marble had 27 points against Wisconsin but the defense didn’t have an answer for the Badgers’ Ben Brust, who scored all 19 of his points in the second half.

Iowa (12-3, 1-1) is a chic pick to finish in the top tier of the conference; they’ll get another chance at a resume-building win next Sunday at No. 3 Ohio State.


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