BLOOMINGTON -- Here comes Michigan State with its top-ranked talent and fifth-ranked status and Indiana coach Tom Crean knows the challenge.
Yes, turnovers are part of it.
Hold that thought.
Crean once worked for Spartans coach Tom Izzo. He was part of a program that has produced one national title, six Final Four appearances and seven Big Ten championships in the last 16 years.
Michigan State (12-1) has the look of a national championship contender, which was why it opened the season No. 2, moved into No. 1 after beating then top-ranked Kentucky and held it until an early December loss to North Carolina.
Health issues and some early distractions regarding the new defensive rules hindered the Spartans early. Those have been resolved. They've won five straight, the last four by at least 14 points. They opened Big Ten play last Tuesday with a 79-63 win at Penn State.
Guard Gary Harris, the former Indiana Mr. Basketball, averages a team-leading 17.4 points. Forward Adreian Payne, as versatile a player as the Big Ten has, averages 17.0 points and 8.1 rebounds when he's not hitting three-pointers (16-for-35). Keith Appling rates with the Big Ten's top point guards, averaging 15.8 points and 4.8 assists.
“They have one of the best teams in the country,” Crean said."There's so many players on the court that can play. They're rarely putting anybody out there who can't make shots.
“They look healthy to me. I see great transition offense. They are tremendous at rebounding. You have to be good at the beginning and at the end of every possession
“You can't let them play the way they want to play. If you do, they'll pretty much beat everybody.”
The Hoosiers (10-4) have won three straight in the series, including last year's victory in East Lansing that was their first there since 1991.
But that was with a veteran group that included Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo, now in the NBA. These Hoosiers are young and raw and -- yes -- turnover prone. They have 63 turnovers in the last three games. They average a Big Ten-worst 16.4 for the season.
Fix that problem and Indiana has the look of a NCAA tourney team. Don't fix it and the Hoosiers will push Northwestern for Big Ten worst team.
What's the answer?
Freshman Stanford Robinson talked about the team's tendency to go for the home run play (can you say spectacular pass?) when the single would do. Keep it simple, slow it down, play smart instead of immature, and the turnovers will slow.
Robinson spoke in the comfort of an Assembly Hall corridor, far from the on-court frenzy of a game, when life gets more complicated.
“It's silly to say we have an understanding of what this takes,” Crean said. “We have some guys who do. It's like I told them, if you're waiting for experience, you'll be waiting for a long time. You have to get an understanding as quick as you can; an understanding of what mistakes can do, possession by possession.”
Crean wants race horse basketball, but only if it's there. Don't force it. Work the offense, move the ball, move the defense, and wait for an opening.
“We've got to slow it down,” he said.
But then, “Sometimes the (passing) windows are open right now. We've got to go.”
Instead, Crean said, the Hoosiers hesitate. They become like a quarterback throwing late to a receiver and getting intercepted.
“We work on it in practice,” he said, “but it's completely different in a game. Last year's team did it like breathing. We have a long way to go in our decision making. Some of our turnovers come from being indecisive. Some we're trying to make plays that aren't there. Some we are just going too fast.
“It doesn't happen in one or two games. It happens over a period of time. You want to make sure you're responding every time. We've done that.”
The response sometimes fizzles in games.You fix the problem, Crean said, through film work, practice and even showing tape of what other teams do.
“Any time with a young group like this,” he said, “there are never going to be one or two ways to reach everybody. You have to be emphatic and clear with your points, even when it's not coming across clear.
“At the same time, you have to bite your tongue a little bit. You don't want to stifle intensity, stifle creativity. Now, you don't want creativity to turn into sloppiness. You want teams with athleticism, with high-throttle guys, and you want them to learn and grow.
“It needs to slow down a little bit. Let's trust the (second pass) a little more than initial pass on the break. Let's get the ball reversed two or three times.”
One of Crean's prime directives is to get the ball inside, especially to double-double forward Noah Vonleh. He has to present a good target. The guards have to create angles and openings.
“Everybody has to be connected,” Crean said. “The post-up has to be strong. You can't have a one-arm post-up with one arm in, one arm out. You can't make a pass without faking a pass. Those are fundamentals of the game and you can't cheat them. Young players want to go a little too fast. They want to skip from A to D, knowing that B and C are important to get to that point.
“I can't tell you when it clicks. It does. It just takes time.”
Today would be the perfect time to start.