BLOOMINGTON -- Indiana Wesleyan is not a patsy. Let's get that straight. It's ranked No. 4 in NAIA Division II and has participated in four straight NAIA national tourneys, five in the last six years. It went 21-12 last season and won the highly regarded Mid-Central College Conference title.
Why does this matter? Because No. 1 Indiana hosts Indiana Wesleyan tonight in an exhibition in name only.
The Hoosiers want to make a preseason statement that they are national title contenders. Indiana Wesleyan wants to show it is prime-time worthy.
Indiana Wesleyan coach Greg Tonagel has a 179-62 record in just over seven seasons that includes four Elite Eight appearances. Most of that success came with associate head coach Jeff Clark, a former Leo High School standout and two-year captain at Anderson College.
The Wildcats have already opened their season with Tuesday's 91-74 win over No. 14 St. Xavier of Illinois. They had three 20-point scorers with guard Jordan Weidner (28 points), guard Aaron Martin (27) and forward Patrick Hopkins (20).
“They are a team that plays up-tempo,” associate head coach Steve McClain said. “They run a lot of motion, a lot of back-cutting, a lot of ball-screen actions. They've got four returning starters, and yet one of those guys didn't start (against St. Xavier).
“What we want out of an exhibition game is a team that has a purpose and they have a purpose.”
That purpose will test IU's revamped defense. Coach Tom Crean has made defensive improvement Priority No. 1. The Hoosiers were mediocre on defense last season and still made the Sweet 16.
Crean pointed to the 102-90 Sweet 16 loss to Kentucky as the best example of what needs to be done.
“In the biggest game of the year, under the brightest lights, we weren't as strong and physical as the team we were facing.”
The Hoosiers addressed their strength, size and physical issues along with tweaking their defensive approach. Crean said he's seen improvement, with more being necessary.
Evaluating that improvement has been based on practice and scrimmages. That will start changing with tonight's exhibition game.
“It's hard to evaluate because we have a really good offensive team,” associate head coach Tim Buckley says. “They can make challenged shots. You have to go back to the film to see, was that shot challenged and did that guy make a tough shot.
“We're putting more pressure on people. We have better intent defensively. People are starting to feel us out there because we're getting better physically and understanding how we need to play.”
IU ranked 10th in the Big Ten in scoring defense, allowing 66.4 points. It was fifth in the conference in field-goal defense, allowing opponents to shoot 42.6 percent. It also was 64th in defensive efficiency. Final Four teams are generally in the top 20 in defensive efficiency.
“We're coming,” McClain said, “but it's not where it's gotta be, no question.
“We're continuing to learn what these new guys can do and where the returning guys have improved. As far as our (defensive) rotations and help side (defense), when you watch the film, we're getting closer to where we want to be.”
Added senior forward Christian Watford: “We've changed certain things as far as ball pressure and getting up in guys, getting up as the ball comes in, turning the ball, stuff like that. We have to speed up the game a lot.”
Beyond winning tonight, McClain said the Hoosiers want to set a tone for the season.
“The identity of our team has become a team that plays with toughness, a team that plays fast, a team that takes great shots. We've got to make sure that's still our identity, and we don't get away from that.
“That's where we start the year right back off at -- that we're a team moving the ball, taking great shots, making the extra pass, and doing all of the things that win.
“What we've prepared to do is play Indiana basketball.”