BLOOMINGTON –- Has Indiana played the Wisconsin patsy role long enough?
We're about to find out.
There was a time the Hoosiers owned Wisconsin. The Badgers were Cream 'n Crimson fodder during most of the Bob Knight era. At one point IU won 31 meetings in a row.
All that changed under Bo Ryan, whose 71.4 Big Ten winning percentage is the best in conference history. Wisconsin has won 10 straight in the series and 16 of 19. It has won four straight at Assembly Hall, which happens about as offense as Lance Armstrong admits to taking performance enhancing drugs.
Does that bother the Hoosiers entering tonight's Big Ten showdown between the leagues' remaining unbeaten teams? Of course it does, although they downplayed it.
“It's a new year,” senior guard Jordan Hulls said. “That's the way we're attacking it. You don't like to lose, obviously, but it's a new team. We stay focused on that and do what we can do.”
IU and Wisconsin share the Big Ten lead with 3-0 records. They have matching six-game winning streaks. Both are coming off victories over ranked teams. Wisconsin (12-4 overall) beat then-No. 12 Illinois 74-51. IU (15-1) held off then-No. 8 Minnesota 88-81.
The Hoosiers jumped from No. 5 to No. 2 in the polls following losses by Duke, Michigan and Arizona. Wisconsin is unranked.
Under Ryan, the Badgers have become known for a swing offense that creates mismatches and a no-gamble defense that forces contested shots.
“Wisconsin wants to drive people, create mismatches, keep their offense at a pace,” coach Tom Crean said. “Make it hard for you to score and get to the foul line.
“We know we have a big-time battle on our hands. We're excited about it.”
Wisconsin leads the Big Ten and ranks sixth nationally in points allowed (54.7). IU leads the nation in scoring, averaging 87.1 points.
Something has to give.
“We've got a few more weapons than maybe we've had,” associate head coach Tim Buckley said. “You've got to try to play at your pace and not their pace.
“They won't make mistakes. You've got to be physical. You've got to be tough. You've got to finish through contact, and share the ball. You can't take quick shots or bad shots. You can't settle for the mid-range jumper, and you've got to be very good on the backboards.”
Wisconsin controls pace by forcing teams to defend for much of the 35-second shot clock, and getting back on defense to prevent transition baskets.
Indiana, Buckley said, will do what it always does -– run and attack.
“We're going to play the way we want to play. I don't think anybody can keep anybody from running unless they grab their jerseys and hold them.
“We want to get out and run. That doesn't mean we want to shoot fast. We want the best shot available. We want to play at the tempo we want to play at. Certainly they want to play at the tempo they want. They've done that very well.”
How can the Hoosiers dictate tempo?
“Some of it is done with pressure,” Buckley said. “Some of it is being aggressive. I also think you've got to be smart when you play that way. You don't want to foul or gamble or give them easy opportunities. They read situations very well. We have to be intelligent with our pressure.”
Wisconsin's surge coincides with the return to health of 6-6 forward Mike Bruesewitz. A lacerated leg and a concussion cost him two games and limited him in several others. But he's rounding into form and averages 7.2 points and 5.9 rebounds.
“We're not surprised Wisconsin is playing as well as it's been playing,” Crean said. “When they had a few struggles, Mike Bruesewitz wasn't in there. He is an absolute energy source. He's one of the more active, hard-working, aggressive players in the country.”
The Badgers have one of the Big Ten's best big men in 6-10 center Jared Berggren. He averages 13.4 points and 6.4 rebounds while shooting 55.2 percent from the field. He had 15 points and 12 rebounds in the Illinois victory.
“He's not a player who worries about numbers,” Ryan said. “In my mind, there are other categories that could put a person into a double-double category – patience on defense, the ability to alter shots, setting screens.
“The game of basketball is a lot more than assist, rebounds and points, although those are important. Jared's all-around game has improved. What he's given our team goes way beyond double doubles.”
Ryan Evans, a 6-6 fifth-year senior forward, averages 11.4 points and 7.8 rebounds. Guard Ben Brust averages 11.1 points and 5.3 rebounds. He also has 50 assists against 18 turnovers.
Wisconsin was set with Josh Gasser at point guard. But his season-ending off-season knee injury pushed freshman George Marshall and sophomore Traevon Jackson into sharing the role. They've done well enough to help the Badgers lead the nation in fewest turnovers, averaging 8.9 a game.
And don't forget freshman Sam Dekker, who earned Big Ten freshman of the week honors after totaling 13 points and four rebounds against Illinois.
“Gasser was going to be a tremendous point guard this year,” Crean said. “It's taken them a little while to get acclimated.
“Berggren is a pro center. When you have a guy in the post who can score like that, who can move his feet like that, who can shoot the way he does, it's a tough matchup.”
Buckley indicated neither Derek Elston nor Maurice Creek are likely to play. Elston tweaked his surgically repaired knee. Creek has a foot injury.
IU's Cody Zeller shared Big Ten player of the week honors with Ohio State's Deshaun Thomas. Zeller averaged 16.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.0 blocks and 3.0 steals in wins over Penn State and Minnesota. Thomas, a former Bishop Luers standout, averaged 21.0 points
5 keys to an Indiana victory
1) Dictate pace: The Hoosiers like to run and attack, and have the nation's best offense (87.1 points). Wisconsin epitomizes patience and tenacity, and has the Big Ten's best defense (54.7 points). Something has to give.
2) Force the action. Wisconsin is the Big Ten's best in ball security, averaging just 8.9 turnovers a game. IU attacks on defense, and nobody does that better than Victor Oladipo. More turnovers mean more IU fast-break opportunities. That will be huge.
3) Make free throws down the stretch. The Hoosiers, the Big Ten's best from the line, would have had a comfortable win over Minnesota if not for uncharacteristic shaky shooting from veterans Jordan Hulls and Christian Watford. No way that happens again.
4) Control the glass. IU leads the conference in rebounding margin, at plus 11.1, and total rebounds, at 41.5. The more defensive rebounds the Hoosiers get, the more fast-break chances they'll have to attack before the Badgers can set up their half-court defense.
5) A better start to the second half. The last two games IU has come out of halftime flat. Turnovers and lack of energy have been major problems. If the Hoosiers do that tonight, Wisconsin will make them pay.