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COLUMN

Indiana basketball back in big-time business

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Tipoff: Northwestern at Indiana, 2:30 p.m., Saturday
Radio: 1250-AM
TV: BTN

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

Hoosiers seek to build on Wisconsin upset

Wednesday, January 15, 2014 - 3:39 am

BLOOMINGTON -- Where were you when Indiana stunned the college basketball world -- again?

Please say you weren't storming Assembly Hall's Branch McCracken Court.

Did you believe that these once stumbling, bumbling Hoosiers could do what their top-ranked predecessor could not against Wisconsin's Bo Ryan-led juggernaut?

Did you figure they could ever figure out how to stop the turnover frenzy?

It's OK to lie.

Really.

In the aftermath of Tom Crean out-coaching Ryan, one of the best in the business, Indiana (12-5) is suddenly back in the conversation of NCAA tourney projections. That's among the advantages of Tuesday night's 75-72 upset of No. 3 Wisconsin, the team that once owned the Hoosiers like they once owned the Badgers, the team with a best-in-school-history 16-0 start.

The 12-game, seven-year losing streak to Wisconsin is over. After an Illinois overtime heartbreak and a Michigan State thumping, after all the questions about whether this youthful team would ever figure out how to play at a Big Ten-contending level, Cream and Crimson life is once again first-kiss good.

IU followed its back-from-15-point-deficit-to-win peril at Penn State with a tough-minded performance against a program that has set the standard for tough-minded play. Fueled by a student-strong crowd (they were back after a three-week semester break), the Hoosiers got the Badgers to blink.

Not much, but just enough.

“We've come very far,” guard Yogi Ferrell said. “We had a lot of early losses, but I felt we learned from that.

“We're going to take this win and be grateful for it. We've been working hard in practice, but we're not going to be content with it. We'll be in the gym practicing. We know we have some tough opponents coming up.”

IU won for a lot of reasons -- outscoring Wisconsin 52-44 in the paint, winning the rebound battle 33-28, shooting 51.6 percent against one of the Big Ten's best defenses, going 7-for-10 from the line to Wisconsin's 1-for-4.

"It would have been nice to get to the free-throw line a little more," Ryan said.

But the No. 1 reason, and this can't be overstated enough, was the turnover improvement.

The Hoosiers finished with a season-low nine turnovers, one fewer than Wisconsin, which leads the Big Ten in fewest turnovers.

In the overtime loss to Illinois, they had a mind-boggling 23. Against Michigan State, they had 15. Against Penn State, they had 13.

This improvement was not by accident. Crean has ratcheted up his take-care-of-the-ball-or-else practice mandate.

“They don't want to turn it over in practice. We've changed the consequences a little bit.”

Can you share those?

“No. No. We'll take it to another level.

“It was the elephant in the room, visible for everybody. We were doing well in so many areas, nationally even. Look how much our shooting has improved. But turnovers were hurting us.

“We've got to continue to understand that. We've moved some people around. We've tweaked some sets. We've added some things, deleted some things. This team is not able yet to have the freedom at times. We made some adjustments. It's getting better. That's why we've won two in a row.”

Once again Crean proved that, yes, he can coach. Exhibit No. 1: The Badgers never figured out how to stop the dribble drives. It wasn't because Ryan suddenly got dumb.

These Hoosiers have talent (good coaching includes good recruiting) and are improving. Beyond the mysterious practice consequences, Crean benched sophomore Jeremy Hollowell, who remains long on potential, short on passion. Hollowell might play Saturday against Northwestern. He might not play again until next year. He might not … well … we'll leave speculation to others.

“I'll play him when I put him in,” Crean said. “He's doing a fantastic job. He's trying to help make sure that he is getting his focus prioritized, and then we'll go from there.”

Before Tuesday, IU had not had a marquee win. It had done nothing to impress an NCAA tourney selection committee. All that has changed, with this stipulation: The Hoosiers must follow this victory with plenty more.

“If we have guys committed to doing what we've been doing,” senior swingman Will Sheehey said, “committed to the game plan, to playing hard, to playing smart, we're going to win games.”

They won Tuesday night. Yes it was big, although not Christian Watford-beating-Kentucky big. Still, understand this: It's a start, nothing more.

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.