Big Ten

Big Ten hoops preview: Hoosiers look to reach top of conference

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Big Ten hoops preview: Hoosiers look to reach top of conference

The biggest question for Indiana this season: Can the Hoosiers get back to contending for a Big Ten title?

The Tom Crean Era started with lows, three straight disappointing finishes of 11th, ninth and again 11th place in the conference. Then came the high, a Big Ten championship in 2013, a 29-win season and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

But that high-water mark seems so long ago. It’s only been two seasons. But eighth- and seventh-place finishes in the Big Ten — one of those seasons ending without an NCAA tournament appearance — have been continually plagued by off-court incidents. Combined, the lack of on-court success and the prevalence of off-court issues have people calling for Crean’s job.

But winning cures all ills, doesn’t it? And it seems like Crean could be set up for another successful season in Bloomington.

The team’s best players all opted to return to school. Yogi Ferrell is back for his senior season. Troy Williams is back for his junior season. James Blackmon Jr. is back for his sophomore season. Throw in the addition of big-name freshman Thomas Bryant, and the Hoosiers look to have what it takes to again compete for a league championship.

“It all comes down to consistency,” Crean said at Big Ten media day earlier this month. “The consistency has got to come through injuries, and it's got to come through some losses, especially in this league. And it's being able to rebound quickly, figuratively, in the sense of being able to withstand all the different challenges that come inside. But, to me, the big characteristics are going to be the mental toughness you've just got to be able to play with. And you've got to be able to control the paint, which means you've got to get layups and you've got to get to the free throw line. At the same time you've got to be able to challenge the rim and keep on the teams from having a real high field goal percentage inside that paint area.

“If you look at the history of this league, especially the last few years, it's high shooting percentages. It's low turnovers. It's very good defensive fields goal percentages. And the top teams are always right there at the rebound percentage or rebound margin areas. Those are the things. Those are the toughest things to deal with and the consistent things that have to be done. I think that's what it is.”

[MORE BIG TEN: Hoops preview: Hill, Nunn need to keep stepping up for Illini]

That’s quite the to-do list.

What the Hoosiers need to keep doing is scoring like they scored last season. Indiana was the highest-scoring team in the Big Ten, averaging 77.4 points per game, and was particularly deadly from 3-point range, leading the conference in 3-point percentage (40.6 percent) and 3-pointers made (319). The Hoosiers ranked in the top 10 in the country in both of those 3-point categories.

But defensively it was a different story, and that’s what needs to change for Indiana to get back in the mix for a conference title. The Hoosiers were dead last in the conference in scoring defense, allowing an average of 71.7 points per game, and dead last in opponents field-goal percentage, allowing opponents to shoot 45.3 percent from the floor.

The Hoosiers know they can score with anybody. But can they stop anybody?

“We have athleticism, we have playmakers, we have shooters, toughness. We really think we have all the tools we need. We play a unique style, as well, a fun style that we succeed at and we know is tough to guard. And we’re definitely going to bring a defensive factor to our game that we really didn’t have last year,” senior guard Nick Zeisloft said. “We struggled on that end, and we definitely look to improve immensely in that category this year. Championship teams play great defense, so we know that’s a big key for us.”

“I think at moments, we’ve seen how well this team can play, but I feel like we’ve got a little bit of a ways to go. We’ve got to get more connected defensively,” Ferrell said. “Offensively, it’s always going to be there, but I think we’ve got to get more connected defensively, have those conversations for our team.”

[MORE BIG TEN: Purdue still waiting for Caleb Swanigan to be cleared by NCAA]

Last season ended with a quick NCAA tournament exit, a loss to Wichita State in the Round of 64. That obviously wasn’t how the Hoosiers — who just barely made it onto the right side of the bubble — wanted things to end. But with most everybody back from that team, there are lessons to be carried over from that season-ending loss.

“We had a bitter taste in our mouth,” Ferrell said. “I felt like during that game, we didn’t come out in the second half with the same level we had in the first half. And I felt like that was the main problem for our team last year was not keeping that same energy, same effort for the entire game. So that’s the main thing we try and tell these guys, ‘Leave it all out on the court because you don’t want to give those eternal hugs at the end of the day.’”

Ferrell drives the bus for this team. He’s a two-time All-Big Ten selection and last season saw his name scattered all over the conference leaderboards. He was sixth in the league in scoring, fourth in assists, fourth in 3-pointers made and sixth in minutes played. He does it all for the Hoosiers from the point guard position, and he’s got the leadership ability to go along with it.

“He means everything for us,” Zeisloft said. “It’s definitely different when he’s not on the court with us. He’s a huge part of our success, and we’ve all learned to play with him and us making plays for him, not just him always making plays for us. We need to help him out, make things easier on him, as well, because teams really zero in on him because of his leadership and his talent.”

But joining the experienced Ferrell in making the difference for the Hoosiers this season will also be an inexperienced but much-hyped recruit in Bryant. Ranked as one of the top 30 players in the Class of 2015, the 6-foot-10 West Virginia native earned rave reviews at media day despite the fact that he hadn’t seen the court much yet, limited in practice due to an injury suffered on the team's first day of practice.

“Thomas Bryant is a different player,” Crean said. “He's got a tremendous athleticism. … The greatest compliment I can give him is: He practiced the first day. We went twice the first day. We held him up second day on, and we missed him every day. We could tell he wasn't out there. Not just because of the way what he scores in rebounds but because his energy is so infectious. The players have a high level of confidence in him. He's got a tremendous work ethic. And he knew he had to get better. And that energy that he brings his teammates is at another place. I think that's where he'll impact our team in a great way. Hopefully, in a great way as soon as we get him healthy.”

[SHOP BIG TEN: Get your Hoosiers gear right here]

On paper, there’s plenty of reason to be excited about Indiana’s prospects for 2015-16. But the Big Ten is as challenging a conference as you’ll find in college basketball, and even the good teams finish in the middle of the pack. There’s work to be done if Indiana is going to be up there among the contenders come March. But they’ve got the pieces to make it happen.

“We feel like we want to go out there and win a Big Ten conference title, and that starts day in and day out with practice and it even starts with our exhibition game that we’ve got coming up in early November,” Ferrell said. “Once we have those goals in mind, we just do what we can do each day and try and do what we do to achieve those goals.

“Everybody can have their opinion about us, what we’re going to be. But at the end of the day, the win-loss column is going to tell whether the expectations were right about us or wrong. We’re not really trying to listen to all that. We know what we need to do, and what we need to do is go out and play for our team.”

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Weeks will separate a perfect 10-year anniversary where Northwestern will play at Wrigley Field for one of its regular season games in the upcoming years.

Back on Nov. 20, 2010, the Wildcats battled it out with Illinois, known as the “Wrigleyville Classic,” which saw the Illini take a 48-27 win.

Even though it’s still two years out, Northwestern still planned ahead and announced its opponent for its game at Wrigley Field on Nov. 7, 2020, against Big Ten rival Wisconsin.

“Obviously an exciting opportunity for our football program to come back to Wrigley Field, one of the Cathedrals of sporting venues in the world,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “When I announced it to our team, they were absolutely ecstatic.”

“The opportunity to play at Wrigley field is unique to us, being Chicago’s Big Ten team, and to have the chance to come down and play in an atmosphere like we did a few years back was a bowl game type atmosphere, and I look forward to this special opportunity.”

This game though will be a little different than it was back in 2010. Both the Wildcats and Illini played toward the west end zone due to a tight squeeze near the right field wall due to box seats that were added down the third base line.

Now, Northwestern and Wisconsin do not have to worry about that problem because the bullpens have since moved to the outfield.

Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney spoke at a news conference earlier on Tuesday at Wrigley.

“So excited to welcome back Northwestern to Wrigley Field to talk about football again,” Kenney said. “We had an incredible experience with them back in 2010."

Kenney also mentioned new seating is on a temporary platform that can all be removed and the dugout tops can be removed as well, and the field will expand west, to allow for a longer field.

With a sellout crowd in the last go around for the Wildcats, don’t be surprised for another sellout at the Friendly Confines.

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

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See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?