To win the Big Ten outright, IU cannot lose on Saturday. It figures to come out with the kind of passion, intensity and downright fury it lacked against the Gophers.
Iowa (18-10) will pay the price. Yes, the Hawkeyes have won four of five, including a 21-point win over Minnesota at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, but it doesn't matter.
This game could be over by halftime.
In fact, if you're into statement performances, and Indiana would love to make one, it had better be.
For the record, the Hoosiers are 12-3 in the Big Ten and hold a one-game lead over Michigan State and Wisconsin with three games left. Because IU has swept the Spartans, it has, in essence, a two-game lead over them in the bid for the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten tourney.
The big threat comes from Wisconsin, which gave Indiana its only home loss in January. Because the teams only play once in the regular season, the Badgers have the tiebreaker edge for the No. 1 conference tourney seed.
Wisconsin has won three straight games and six of its last seven. In the last three games it outscored Ohio State by 21 points, Northwestern by 28 and Nebraska by 31.
The Badgers host Purdue on Sunday, play at Michigan State next Thursday, then close at home against Penn State on March 10. They'll beat Purdue and Penn State. If they also beat the Spartans, they'll get to the Big Ten tourney as the hottest team, perhaps even the favorite, regardless of what Indiana does in its final three games.
In other words, IU will be rooting like heck for Michigan State over Wisconsin.
The Hoosiers (24-4 overall) host Ohio State (21-7) on Tuesday night and then play at Michigan (23-5) on March 10 in the regular-season finale. If they win all three, they win the outright conference title, the No.1 Big Ten tourney and, almost certainly, a No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed.
Lose one of those — the Michigan game is the most dangerous because the Wolverines are the only Big Ten team to be unbeaten at home this season — and they could end up as a No. 2 seed in both events.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
IU has spent the last couple of days preparing for a big finish. Rebounding has been addressed in practice. Blocking has received special attention. So has being physical in a physical league.
If the Hoosiers learn as well as they did after the Illinois loss, they'll be in great shape for these final three games.
If not, they'll blow an opportunity IU hasn't had since 2002, or 1993 if you want an outright conference title.
On Tuesday, Minnesota was extremely physical and was allowed to be so. That's fine. Players must adjust to the officiating and IU didn't do that. Coach Tom Crean was clear about that in his post-game comments.
“We weren't physical enough,” he said. “We didn't create the first hit. There were too many times that the shot went up and they were there before we were because we weren't into their bodies.”
In the second half, Minnesota had 14 offensive rebounds to IU's four. That really bothered Crean, who had mentioned the importance of rebounding in the days leading up to the game.
“It just can't be 14 to 4 in the second half on second shots,” he said. “It just can't. It was, and that's why we lost.”
The Gophers manhandled IU's Cody Zeller and Christian Watford into irrelevance. That can't happen again.
Figure it won't, and certainly not against Iowa on Saturday.
For one, the Hawkeyes have no one remotely comparable to Minnesota muscle man Trevor Mbakwe, a double-double machine who, at least for one night, showed who the best Big Ten big man was.
For another, Hoosier stakes are too high. They understand the importance.
Iowa is gonna pay.
Up nextTipoff: Iowa at Indiana, 7:30 p.m. Saturday
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