BLOOMINGTON – Is Indiana ready for the ultimate basketball endurance test?
Can the Hoosiers (15-11 overall, 5-8 in the Big Ten) follow up Saturday's tough-minded win at Northwestern with a victory at Wisconsin – where they haven't won since 1998?
Can they somehow salvage an NCAA tourney bid with a big-time finish against a closing schedule as formidable as their early schedule was soft?
Let's take a look.
First, IU won at Northwestern by making the kind of end-of-game plays – can you say Will Sheehey's clutch three-pointer? – it didn't against Penn State, Nebraska and Minnesota. That snapped a three-game losing streak and renewed hope that had seemingly all but disappeared after the Purdue collapse.
That win started a four-games-in-eight-days stretch that was made necessary by last week's postponed Iowa contest because of Assembly Hall safety issues (a fallen 50-pound metal plate hours before tipoff forced officials to call off the game).
Now comes No. 14 Wisconsin (22-5, 9-5) tonight, No. 20 Iowa (20-6) on Thursday night and No. 22 Ohio State (22-6) on Sunday.
You'd better believe it.
But after an unexpected week with nothing but practice, do the Hoosiers really mind a game-heavy stretch?
Are you kidding?
“It is always fun to play games, of course, just like the old AAU days," guard Yogi Ferrell said. "But you definitely need a little practice in there so you can get a little structure of a team, get different sets in and see what other teams do.
"I am 50-50 on it. We need the practice to go hard and get better at things, individually and as a team. But at the same time, it is always fun going out there and playing so we can show what we work on in practice.”
The Hoosiers have lost 11 straight times in Madison, and in 12 of the last 13 games against Wisconsin.
The good news is they won the last meeting – 75-72 last month at Assembly Hall, when the Badgers were 16-0 and ranked No. 3.
That started a Wisconsin slide of five losses in six games that seemingly knocked it out of the Big Ten race. But the Badgers have won five straight – including victories over conference leader Michigan and conference runner-up Michigan State, plus a season sweep of Iowa.
“Guys as individuals are stepping up,” Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. “We're trying to get nights where everyone is more consistent with their shooting percentages.”
IU coach Tom Crean is well aware of the Badgers' formidable skill set.
“(Wisconsin) is playing with extreme confidence. They are shooting the ball at an amazing rate, with the way they are shooting it from three, the way they are getting to the foul line and the way (forward) Frank Kaminsky is playing.
“They are hot for a reason. They are playing both ends of the court. We have our work cut out for us.”
The 7-foot Kaminsky has emerged as one of the Big Ten's best three-point shooters as well as an all-around offensive threat. He's scored 17, 25 and 21 points in his last three games. He averages 13.3 points for the season.
“(He has) driving ability,” Crean said. “He's literally taking the ball from the three-point line and getting all the way to the basket. The shooting is there, the post-up is there, without question, but the driving game is something that obviously they are spending a lot of time on.
“They have always been a very good isolation, one-on-one, get-the-matchup-that-they-want team, whether it's in the post or on the perimeter. It's a huge part of
IU counters with its own matchup-disrupting option in freshman Troy Williams. In 22 minutes against Northwestern, he had zero turnovers.
Let's repeat: A guy who has been a turnover machine this season had no turnovers.
Williams had 12 points on 5-for-7 shooting – including a couple of monster dunks – and added four rebounds.
Did we mention he didn't have a turnover?
“Troy is getting better without the ball and you see the athleticism he has when he goes to the rim,” Crean said. “The fact he had no turnovers with the amount of minutes he played was fantastic. When he's locked in and focused like that … he's improving. He's starting to understand that it's OK to slow down, but when there's a chance to speed up, go get that one.”
What does that mean? Basically, Williams sometimes plays too fast for his own good. He didn't do that at Northwestern.
“He played fast, but he didn't play in a hurry,” Crean said. “It's the old John Wooden (saying): be quick, but don't hurry.
“He's such a high-wire guy. He's got such a high-energy level that sometimes he picks his foot up before the ball goes down. Little things like that.
“He's improving all the time. (Against Northwestern), his footwork was really good. He didn't try to take shots that weren't there. He stayed true to the spacing. He's a big part of our team.”
After this week, IU wraps things up against surging Nebraska (five straight victories, 16-10) and at No. 16 Michigan (which just swept Michigan State to take over the outright Big Ten lead at 11-3, 19-7 overall).
If the Hoosiers win four of their last five regular-season games, they'll finish 9-9 in the Big Ten. Given the strength of the conference, that would almost certainly get them an NCAA tourney at-large bid.
A cynic would say the only reason Indiana beat Northwestern was because the Wildcats' second-leading scorer JerShon Cobb (foot injury) and forward Nikola Cerina (suspension) didn't play, and that there's no chance the Hoosiers will win even three of their last five games.
But in an age of cynicism and Justin Bieber overload, IU has one thing going for it: