Charboneau: Indiana a surprise contender for title

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

It wasn’t too long ago that Tom Crean’s seat was starting to gain a familiar warmth.

The Indiana coach has grown accustomed to some of the Hoosiers faithful becoming frustrated with the team’s lack of overall success since Crean took over in 2008, but rarely had it come so early in the season.

But coming off a trip to the Maui Invitational in November that included losses to Wake Forest and UNLV, the Hoosiers came home and got rolled on the road against Duke in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. Crean was, once again, feeling the pressure as Indiana looked like anything but a Big Ten contender.

However, with just two weeks left in the regular season, there is one team that can win the conference title without relying on help from other teams — Indiana.

“I would say the biggest thing is how they’ve stayed focused on each game,” Crean said after Saturday’s victory at home over rival Purdue. “I know that sounds cliché-ish, but it’s absolutely true. I don’t think we’d have this record without that.”

Following a week where Iowa and Maryland were both upset, that record has Indiana (22-6, 12-3 Big Ten) tied for first place in the conference thanks to the victory over Purdue that was preceded by a win over Nebraska earlier in the week.

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What made the week even more impressive for the Hoosiers was the fact they were coming off one of their more lopsided losses of the season — an 88-69 blowout at Michigan State. It was the second loss in three games for Indiana and it looked like the difficulty of the schedule down the stretch was starting to take its toll.

Instead, the Hoosiers are right where they need to be with just three games to play.

“I felt like we had a couple lulls, a couple losses here and there,” senior guard Yogi Ferrell said. “But I felt like we bounced back from those losses really well. It’s helped us win these games.

“We stayed with it. We have a very communicative team. We’re always talking. We’re always talking other team’s tendencies. We listen to each other. We just take it onto the court. I just feel that connectivity is there for us right now.”

Locking up at least a share of the Big Ten title is far from a formality considering who the Hoosiers face over the last two weeks. Indiana travels to Illinois on Thursday before getting the weekend off. After that comes a trip to Iowa and the finale at home with Maryland.

The Hoosiers have already beaten Iowa but have yet to face Maryland.

Those two games will tell plenty about who eventually finishes on top, but for Indiana, it’s already been quite the season considering where it started.

“Going back to December, they have stayed centered on the day, the preparation that goes into it, practicing really hard,” Crean said. “When you have that, and when they’re in there watching film, when they’re in there putting things together, they’re communicating with the coaches, they’re locked in. They’re not just bought in, they’re locked in.

“I think that’s been the biggest thing to me, has been that consistency of focus that they’ve carried.”

Hawkeyes struggling

As well as things have been going for Indiana, things have been as rocky for the team tied atop the standings — Iowa.

The Hawkeyes were upset at Penn State on Wednesday, their second loss in the last three games after a loss at Indiana a week before.

“You can’t just show up to play,” guard Peter Jok told the Cedar Rapids Gazette after the loss at Penn State. “You’ve got to play your game every time you play.”

Iowa didn’t play over the weekend as it gets ready for the final push in its effort to win an outright title for the first time since 1970. The schedule is favorable with a home game against Indiana on March 1 setting up as a potential winner-take-all game.

For the Hawkeyes to come out on top, they’ll need more than just Jok and senior Jarrod Uthoff. According to Scott Dochterman of The Gazette, the duo has accounted for nearly 66 percent of Iowa’s offense in the last two games.

“We’ve got some things we really need to work on and seal up,” center Adam Woodbury said. “Offensively, we’re getting kind of stagnant and relying on those guys too much. At times we force those guys into bad shots at the end of the shot clock. We’ve got to rectify some of those problems and get better.”

Schedule helps Ohio State

Ohio State has taken advantage of its schedule with four straight wins, adding two more the past week over Michigan and Nebraska. The Buckeyes are in fourth place at 10-5; Michigan State and Wisconsin also have five losses.

Whether the Buckeyes have truly made progress or just found a soft spot in the schedule will likely be determined in the next two weeks as they finish with a trip to Michigan State and a home game with Iowa.