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COLUMN

Is Indiana up for the Big Ten challenge?

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For more on college sports, follow Pete DiPrimio via Twitter at www.twitter.com/pdiprimio.

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Tipoff: Nicholls State at Indiana, 7 p.m., Friday.
Radio: 1250-AM
TV: BTN

Hoosier production must meet potential

Monday, December 16, 2013 - 12:01 am

So now we have all the information we need to assess Indiana's Big Ten basketball chances. The Hoosiers are done with games that matter in the big picture.

Hold on, you say. Doesn't IU (8-3) have two games this weekend to wrap up non-conference play?

True, but those represent fantasy and not Big Ten reality.

We'll learn nothing from Nicholls State and Kennesaw State. The Hoosiers should do what they want when they want for as long as they want. If they don't, it's their fault. Nicholls State and Kennesaw State don't have close to the firepower to be competitive in Assembly Hall.

It should be Samford all over again.

Meanwhile, a trip to Illinois (9-2) looms on New Year's Eve. Fifth-ranked Michigan State (8-1) comes to Assembly Hall. And then, on Jan. 14, there's No. 4

Wisconsin (12-0), which owns the Hoosiers the way the Cream 'n Crimson once did them back in the Bob Knight heyday.

But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves.

Some see Saturday's Notre Dame defeat as a sign of the Apocalypse, another indicator of Tom Crean's coaching flaws.

That, too, is not reality.

Crean did coach IU to its first Big Ten title in 20 years last season along with a pair of Sweet 16 finishes. Yes, last spring's NCAA tourney loss to Syracuse despite having a pair of top-5 NBA draft picks had some screaming under-achievement, but a very good Syracuse squad with a suffocating 2-3 zone had a lot to do with that.

In other words, Crean might not be John Wooden, but he does have a clue. The program is in good shape.

For this season, Indiana is very talented and very young, and while most coaches will tell you they'll take talent over experience, they always seem to forget how miserable learning curves can be.

So do fans.

It took ex-Hoosier Victor Oladipo three years to become NBA ready. Zeller needed one, but chose to take two.

You can't rush development. You just can't.

Development isn't science. Some improve faster than others, and it goes way beyond physical skills.

Kentucky is experiencing that for the second straight year. It has ridiculous talent levels, but three early losses -- all against ranked teams -- suggest the gulf that exists between potential and production. Coach John Calipari, whose program is based on one-and-done recruiting, is agonizing these days.

Yes, that leaves a happy Cream 'n Crimson faithful, but that's a topic for another day.

So what do we make of Indiana? Washington is its best win, which isn't saying much given the Huskies are 5-4 and likely will finish in the bottom half of the Pac-12. But, hey, at least that win came outside of Bloomington in New York City. Victories over LIU Brooklyn, Stony Brook, Evansville and Oakland are what must happen in Assembly Hall comfort.

You often learn more from defeat than victory. IU was so good the last two years in part because of what it went through the previous three.

The freshmen have much to learn. Double-double threat Noah Vonleh got a lesson in post play from Notre Dame inside veteran Garrick Sherman. He'll be better because of it. The same is true of freshman Troy Williams, who did nothing against the Irish.

In Big Ten play, veterans Will Sheehey, Yogi Ferrell and Evan Gordon must thrive every game. They have to be tough, relentless and consistent. Sheehey's 22 points and five rebounds against Notre Dame must be the norm. The five turnovers and zero assists cannot.

If that happens, if the freshmen adjust quickly to life in the Big Ten, a 9-9 conference record is realistic.

If it doesn't, well, the Big Ten will be brutally tough again. Wisconsin, Michigan State and No. 3 Ohio State from as good a top of a conference as we've seen in a long time. Add No. 23 Iowa, former top-15 Michigan and the rest, and the challenge is formidable.

IU has the talent to handle it. We'll see if the production can match it.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Pete DiPrimio at pdiprimio@news-sentinel.com.