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Forget history lesson, IU just wants to win

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Tipoff: Indiana vs. Illinois, noon, Thursday, Big Ten tourney
Radio: 1250-AM
TV: BTN

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

Hoosiers gearing up for Big Ten tourney

Wednesday, March 12, 2014 - 2:37 am

BLOOMINGTON -- Forget that blather about those who refuse to study history are doomed to repeat it.

Indiana just wants to win the Big Ten Tournament, get that automatic NCAA tourney bid and put the joy back in Hoosiers fans.

Studying the Hoosiers' history of Big Ten tourney misery won't help.

For those who can't help themselves or just don't know better, consider that in the 16 previous Big Ten tourneys, IU has zero championships and just one title game appearance – in 2001 it lost to Iowa, which as the No. 6 seed remains the only team to win four games in four days.

Indiana has lost in the first round three times and the quarterfinals eight times.

See what we mean about history?

For those who love their Cream and Crimson punishment, under coach Tom Crean the Hoosiers are 2-5 in the event, the last two losses coming to Wisconsin.

For the record, the Badgers are in the opposite bracket, which means IU would have to win three games in three days for a chance at facing them Sunday.

Understand that the Hoosiers (17-13) will likely start three freshmen and play four extensively Thursday against Illinois (18-13). The only history they are focused on is their 1-1 regular-season split with Illinois and this Big Ten tourney opener.

This is the freshmen's first experience with one-and-done postseason pressure. That will not be part of Crean's get-ready message. He wants to keep the regular-season routine with one main modification: Lighten the practice load so players are fresh for what could be a grueling run.

“I don't think you do a lot of things differently. You are really building up for these points with where their bodies are at and keeping them as fresh as possible," Crean said. "The most important thing is that you don't ever look ahead. It doesn't really matter what team you have going in. If you look ahead to Day Two, you could be done on Day One and you don't want any part of that. You have to be so locked into what is in front of you.”

What's in front of IU is an Illinois team that went young – freshmen Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill became starters, veterans Joseph Bertrand and Jon Ekey became reserves – and won five of its last eight games, and four of its last five.

That included impressive road victories over Michigan State and Iowa.

Beat the Illini and the Hoosiers will get a third shot Friday at Big Ten champ Michigan. The teams also split 1-1.

Lose and they wait on an NIT bid nobody in the program wants.

That, too, is not part of Crean's pre-tourney message.

“Everything for us is get ourselves better and get ready to play Illinois,” he said. “Then, in the short turnaround like that, if you're successful, then you are just looking at making sure that you go back and remind your guys of certain things.

"The most important thing is that you get better during the week, that your individual improvement is as strong as your team improvement. You stay focused with that and that you put everything into the team that you're playing because that's what the season is like. So I don't think we'd get away from that at all no matter what time it is.”

For Illinois, Nunn and Hill have started the last eight games to provide a spark that transcends their modest numbers – Nunn averages 6.2 points and 1.5 rebounds, Hill averages 4.0 points and 2.3 rebounds.

But as a starter Nunn averages 12.4 points on 53.7 percent shooting, including 52.8 percent from three-point range. In the upset of Iowa, he was 4 of 4 from the field for 10 points and four assists.

Hill has averaged 5.7 points as a starter.

Bertrand (8.9 points) and Ekey (7.4 points, 5.2 rebounds) have adapted to their off-the-bench roles.

Rayvonte Rice leads the team in scoring (15.7) and rebounding (6.1). Tracy Abrams averages 10.5 points and 3.3 rebounds. He has a team-high 99 assists.

“Kendrick Nunn is playing outstanding,” Crean said. “For a guy that people at the beginning of the Big Ten season may not have been as locked into, I think you are now. But at the same time, guys like Rayvonte Rice, Tracy Abrams, (Nnanna) Egwu, (Joseph) Bertrand, (Jon) Ekey, the leaders of their team, are playing at a pretty good level too. The bottom line is they know how to win. They know what it takes to win.”

Stopping Rice is a key. He's averaged 25 points in two games against IU. Crean said on his Monday night radio show, “That can't happen. We have to guard him better.”

Nunn and Hill have helped boost the defense. The Illini, who protect the rim with 6-foot-11 Nnanna Egwu, held Ohio State, Minnesota, Nebraska and Michigan to fewer than 50 points. They haven't done that since 1948.

“They are just trying to control tempo,” Crean said. “They are much like Ohio State in that they create a lot of turnovers with the way if you're loose with the basketball. If you drive it into traffic, they make you pay for that. They are very strong defensively.

“They are opportunistic with their running game. They are making it hard for you to get good looks and they expose you if you over-handle. And they are rebounding at a high rate.”

Big Ten Freshman of the Year forward Noah Vonleh will play this week, Crean said, but he's not fully recovered from an inflamed left foot that sidelined him for two games. Crean added that he wasn't sure Vonleh would reach 100 percent health this season.

Even a subpar Vonleh is formidable. He played 21 off-the-bench minutes Saturday at Michigan and totaled seven points and eight rebounds.

Without him the Hoosiers turned to freshman Devin Davis, and he's averaged 8.0 points and 4.5 rebounds in his last two games. As a result, Crean said on his Monday night radio show, he's leaning toward going big and playing Vonleh and Davis at the same time.

“I thought Noah and Devin did a really nice job (against Michigan),” Crean said. “It gives us more versatility going into the tournament."

That's a history the Hoosiers can live with.