On some level, Indiana coach Tom Crean said, it’s an accomplishment for his basketball program simply to have returned to this point.
Less than five years after he took over the Hoosiers in the midst of an implosion that would lead to three straight 20-loss seasons, his squad is gearing up for the biggest game in the history of Assembly Hall in terms of the teams’ Associated Press poll rankings. It’s also doing so on about as big of a stage as the college basketball regular season can provide, with ESPN’s College Gameday studio show on hand for No. 3 Indiana’s game against No. 1 Michigan tonight at 9.
“It means that a lot of people have worked extremely hard,” Crean said during a press conference Friday. “The vision was real, even when you couldn’t see it. … If you’re at Indiana, you’re going to play in some great games. You’re going to play in some tremendous venues, starting with where you play your home games, and you want to be able to play for the whole thing. When you get into a situation like this, all of those things are there because people believed in it.”
But that was as much reflection as he was willing to do on Friday, and as much as he wanted to say about how far Indiana had come to get to this position. Other than that, he broke down the following obvious point in excruciating detail.
The Michigan team his Hoosiers are about to play is extremely good.
“Gameday will take care of itself,” Crean said. “Guarding Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway and Glenn Robinson and those guys, that’s another story.”
Burke, Hardaway and Robinson are three of the key cogs in what is statistically the most efficient offense in college basketball. The Wolverines average fewer points per game than Indiana with 78.0 to the Hoosiers’ Division I-best 84.0 per game, but they are that close despite playing at a much slower pace. Michigan leads the Big Ten in field goal percentage (.510) and ranks second to the Hoosiers in 3-point field goal percentage (.408), while leading the nation in offensive efficiency, averaging 124.8 points per 100 possessions. They’re also second in effective field goal percentage — a statistic that adds weight to 3-pointers in the calculation of field goal percentage — at 57.7 percent.
The Wolverines don’t play extremely fast, ranking 275th in the nation in tempo with an average of 63.9 possessions per game, but when they decide to run in transition, they’re nearly unstoppable.
“They are tremendous at running on misses and turnovers,” Crean said. “They really, really run. They’re not only one of, if not the best running team in the Big Ten, they’re certainly as good as there is in the country. They do get out, they want the easy buckets.”
And they get a lot of those thanks to Burke.
The sophomore guard shared the Big Ten Freshman of the Year award with Indiana center Cody Zeller last season, he was a preseason All-American this year, and if the voting were held today, he’d have a very good shot at being national Player of the Year. He ranks second in the Big Ten in scoring with 17.9 points per game. He’s first in assists by a long shot with 7.1 per game, and according to the advanced statistics website KenPom.com, he has the highest offensive rating in the country among players used on at least 28 percent of their team’s possessions at 129.5.
“I think he’s the best point guard in the country,” said ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, who also held a press conference for GameDay on Friday. “Containing him is going to be a big thing. … He gets it across half court in a dribble or two and then really makes good decisions. The key is, and it’s easy to say, but it’s hard to do, is can you corrall him in transition and slow him down. If you can stay in front of him and not get on the side of him where he’s got an angle, once he’s got an angle, it’s over, he’s gonna score.”
Said IU senior guard Jordan Hulls: “He’s really good. He can do a lot of things. He can get to the rim, he can pass. So that makes it pretty difficult, but we’ve gotta just execute the game plan that we have set up and go from there.”
Burke has a lot of weapons around him to kick the ball out to. Junior guard Tim Hardaway Jr. (15.5 ppg) and freshmen Nik Stauskas (12.6 ppg) and Glenn Robinson III (12.1 ppg) all average in double figures.
But of course, the Hoosiers have tons of firepower as well. Indiana leads the nation in scoring offense, ranks third in Division I in offensive efficiency (122.9 points per 100 possessions) and came into the week ranked third in Division I in 3-point field goal percentage and fifth in overall field goal percentage. They have five players averaging double digit scoring and they’re also leading the Big Ten in field goal percentage defense.
“Let’s run,” senior guard Jordan Hulls said. “We can run, I guess. Obviously we want to do what’s best for the team in what’s going on during the game, but both of our teams like to get out and run and score the ball.”