BLOOMINGTON – Here is Indiana, rolling along with a 7-1 basketball record, and now things really get interesting. The Hoosiers are set to face Kentucky, a rival in name, a dominator in practice.
But these are different Hoosiers, if you believe their coach. How? They believe they can win. They show resolve; and if it hasn't shown yet against a ranked team, now they get their chance – Saturday at 10th-ranked Kentucky.
“It's about believing you can win and believing you should win,” said coach Tom Crean. “We need to learn how to win; and before you learn how to win, you need to hate to lose.”
Hate can fuel competitiveness, that nasty attitude necessary when the opponent is strong and the challenge is formidable.
“There are very few people who don't enjoy winning, and there are a lot of people who thrive on it,” Crean said. “There are very few people who absolutely hate to lose. You need a team full of guys like that to be successful. You have to drive each other, and that's what they are doing.”
Driving against Savannah State, as IU did in Saturday's 79-57 win, is one thing. Doing it against Kentucky at Rupp Arena, where the Hoosiers haven't won since 1988, is something else. The Wildcats have won 15 of the last 19 meetings since 1990.
“They're well-coached and extremely hard to guard,” Crean said.
The Wildcats are a freshman-led team learning on the fly. They are 5-2, with losses to Connecticut in the finals of the Maui Invitational and North Carolina in Chapel Hill over the weekend. They shoot just 63.4 percent from the line, although they picked it up at North Carolina (16-for-21).
They lost 75-73 in part because of massive foul trouble. Four players fouled out. The Tar Heels had 16 more free-throw attempts.
That foul disparity is unlikely to happen Saturday at Rupp Arena.
IU will have the experience edge, given Kentucky plays three freshmen extensively, two as starters, and has just one senior.
But the Wildcats' freshman class ranks No. 1 in the nation, even without standout Turkish forward Enes Kanter, who is ineligible because he received $33,000 in extra benefits while playing for his club team in Turkey. Coach John Calipari has become a recruiting monster since arriving in Lexington.
Freshman forward Terrence Jones is 6-8 and 244 pounds. He leads the team in scoring (19.0), rebounds (9.6) and blocks (16).
Freshman guard Brandon Knight averages 17.0 points, 3.3 rebounds and 3.4 assists.
Freshman swingman Doron Lamb, who usually comes off the bench, averages 13.3 points. He shoots 52.5 percent from the field, 58.3 percent from three-point range.
Those three ranked fourth or higher in the Class of 2010.
And then there's Calipari. In 17 years he's won 480 games. His last five teams, using the dribble-drive offense, have each won at least 33 games.
“It's a tough place to play, but as usual, it's the players they put on the floor,” Crean said. “They're well-coached and extremely hard to guard. They create a lot of matchup problems.
“We've got some time to get into that. It will be a tough week of preparation.”