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COLUMN

Full-throttle Indiana needs to hit the brakes

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Tipoff: Michigan State at Indiana, 2 p.m., Saturday
Radio: 1250-AM
TV: CBS

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

Turnover-prone Hoosiers move too fast

Friday, January 3, 2014 - 9:13 pm

BLOOMINGTON -- For Indiana, it's time to hit the basketball brakes.

Please.

Playing fast isn't working. In fact, when you consider turnovers, and you'd better consider them, it's getting worse.

The Hoosiers have 63 turnovers in their last three games. They had an unacceptable 23 in Tuesday's overtime loss at Illinois.

Remarkably, if they'd have had even 22 turnovers, they might have won.

Taking care of the ball remains the problem that won't go away. IU is last in the Big Ten in turnovers, averaging 16.4 a game. Purdue and Iowa are tied for the next worst, at 11.9.

For the season, Indiana has 59 more turnovers than assists. And that's against one of the softest non-conference schedules a major college team will play. Imagine the possibilities for disaster in the rugged Big Ten.

Consider Saturday's opponent, No. 5 Michigan State, which has 100 more assists than turnovers.

To think the Hoosiers will suddenly get it right while playing at warp-factor-six speed is, well, silly.

It's understandable why coach Tom Crean wants to play fast. First, it's his style, and it can work. See his previous two teams -- two Sweet 16s, a Big Ten title -- as proof of that. Of course, those were veteran-dominated groups.

Second, IU is a poor outside shooting team (it ranks 10th in the Big Ten from three-point range at 32.9 percent), although the Illinois performance suggests that might be changing. Getting up the court fast can beat defenses and produce easy baskets.

Third, it can wear out opponents, and a fatigued team is more likely to make late-game mistakes.

Fourth, it fully maximizes the Hoosiers' athleticism and depth, although that was hurt with freshman center Luke Fischer's surprise departure this week.

Finally, it lets them exploit the new defensive rules by making it easier to drive and get to the foul line, where they excel (they lead the league in free throws made and attempted).

But you have to take care of the ball. You just do. And if you have to slow it down, don't hesitate.

That doesn't mean you have to be Wisconsin, which averages a Big Ten-low 8.5 turnovers. But you can't waste possessions at Indiana's rate and expect Big Ten success. You can't beat yourself. At least let the other team beat you.

Consider the 83-80 overtime loss at Illinois.

IU was excellent from three-point range, making 10-of-22 -- on the road, no less.

It was excellent from the free throw line, going 24-for-30 despite an extremely hostile State Farm Center environment.

It was more than solid in rebounding, taking a 43-31 advantage.

Defensively, it was decent, especially if you ignore do-everything-guard Rayvonte Rice's 29 points.

All of that was negated by those 23 turnovers.

Crean understands the problem just as he struggles to solve it. After the Illinois loss he said the Hoosiers have to "slow down better," but they also have to "play fast" and "with a better pace because the games are really intense."

So which is it?

The Hoosiers talk about playing smarter and making better decisions. They work on it a ton in practice. And they have one of the nation's top point guards in Yogi Ferrell to get it right.

"We all know we have some turnover issues," Crean said. "We're trying to correct those."

But here's bottom-line reality -- the faster you play, the more likely you are to mess up. And when you're painfully young, as IU is, that magnifies the problem.

A big issue is the late turnovers by the most veteran players. Ferrell had two in the final two minutes of regulation against Illinois. Swingman Will Sheehey had a couple late against Notre Dame a few weeks earlier.

Take those away and Indiana likely wins. It's 12-2, and perhaps 13-1 (it had 19 turnovers in a 59-58 loss to Connecticut), instead of 10-4. It's a top-15 program.

If that means slowing down, well, there are worse things. We saw plenty of that during Crean's first three IU seasons.

A possible compromise is play fast for the first, say, 35 minutes, and if the game is a nail biter, as Big Ten games often are, be deliberate the rest of they way. Work the defense, probe it, reverse the ball and, under no circumstances, try long passes. It's too risky, and these Hoosiers have spent half a season proving risk has little reward.

Oh, one other thing. Michigan State (12-1) has three of the Big Ten's top steal producers in Travis Trice, Gary Harris and Brandon Dawson. You'd better believe they'd love to see a Saturday track meet.

Indiana will eventually figure it out. Will that be this season, or in future ones? Hit the brakes, or at least tap them, and you have a chance now. Continue racing toward disaster and you'll find 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.