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COLUMN

Versatility a key to Indiana's title aspirations

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Tipoff: Purdue at Indiana,2 p.m. Saturday
RADIO: 1250-AM
TV: ESPN

Online: For more on Indiana athletics, follow Pete DiPrimio via Twitter at pdiprimio.

Top-ranked Hoosiers roll past Nebraska

Thursday, February 14, 2013 - 12:32 pm

BLOOMINGTON -- It's not like Tom Crean was surprising anyone. He's not into drama or idle boasts, but he also won't duck the obvious.

“We're trying to win a national championship,” he said.

The top-ranked Indiana Hoosiers are shooting for the college basketball mountaintop and it likely won't come just with full-throttle play. There's always a team -- say Wisconsin or Northwestern or, on Thursday night, Nebraska -- that wants to force a half-court, slow-it-down style.

Sometimes you win with basketball as art, with fast-paced, rock-the-rim action. Sometimes you have to grind it out until somebody's will is broken.

Indiana, Crean said, is now fully prepared for whatever is necessary.

“We are trying to make sure our team continually understands that to win big, to win really big, you've got to be able to play a lot of different ways.”

The Hoosiers, as the 76-47 win over Nebraska showed, have bought in.

“To get where we want to go,” forward Christian Watford said, “we know we have to play multiple styles of basketball.”

Sure, Crean prefers to turn basketball games into track meets, to bring fatigue to the game, as he likes to say. The Hoosiers do that better than anyone in the Big Ten with their conference-leading 83.1-point scoring average, seven points better than second-place Illinois.

But some opponents strip away the speed and fast-break, until all that's left is focus and execution, and if you can't adjust, you won't add another banner to Assembly Hall's total.

“As much as we want to set the pace and tempo,” Crean said, “sometimes you don't have to have patience, but you have to wait for your opportunity. As long as you're playing solid, as long as you're sticking with what you know works, sometimes those opportunities come when you least expect it, or they come when you force the tempo just a little bit more defensively because you can.”

IU did all of that against Nebraska. It started slow and finished fast. It thrived with a second-half ruthlessness that, if sustained for 40 minutes Saturday against Purdue, will lead to another blowout victory.

“There are certain things we'd really like to do defensively and offensively,” Crean said. “I don't know if they'll be records, but they'll be things that could really make us better.

“At the end of the day, if you want to win big, you've got to play a lot of different ways, and our guys did that. They stayed true to the game plan.”

In other words, IU did what it always does when it's at its best: attack the rim and draw fouls.

“No matter how we had to do it, we needed to get to the foul line,” Crean said.

Mission accomplished. Nebraska (12-13 overall, 3-9 in the Big Ten) had 22 fouls -- forward Brandon Ubel fouled out; guards David Rivers and Shavon Shields each had four -- which led to 29 Hoosier free throw opportunities. They made 24, which is 82.8 percent.

“They're always on the attack,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said. “That's just how they are.”

Indiana is shooting 86.2 percent from the line in its last five games.

“We were in foul trouble most of the night,” Miles said. “You get to a certain point and it feels like you're on the Titanic. It's just one guy after another after another.”

IU dominated even with forward Cody Zeller a first-half no-show because of foul trouble. He bounced back with a big second half that left him with 16 points and five rebounds. Victor Oladipo was again a force of basketball nature with 13 points, eight rebounds and three steals. Watford recorded his fifth double-double of the season -- and 17th of his career -- with 13 points and 11 rebounds.

But while offense gets the glamor, it's defense that gives IU a national title chance. It held Nebraska to 18 first-half points. The Cornhuskers' 47 total points are the fewest the Hoosiers have allowed a Big Ten opponent since holding Iowa to 43 in 2008.

“Defense is what you should lean on from the start regardless of whether your offense is going or not,” swingman Will Sheehey said. “There's a direct correlation to how well we're playing on defense and how well we're playing on offense. If teams are getting easy baskets you can't run as well. If we get stops we're going to score on the other end.”

And so Indiana is 22-3 overall, 10-2 in the Big Ten. It is tied with No. 8 Michigan State atop the conference standings. Next Tuesday those teams will battle at the Breslin Center and it will almost certainly be a track meet.

And if not, well, the Hoosiers, as we know know, can handle 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.