IOWA CITY — Indiana Coach Tom Crean sat as his table and answered questions for nearly two hours at Big Ten media day. Then, as the mosh pit started to dissipate, Crean was tossed a different question, one about the rise of Iowa’s men’s basketball program. He gladly accepted it.
“They’ve got a fearless coach,” Crean said of Fran McCaffery that October day. “They’ve got a guy who plays to win the game. He doesn’t play to prove he has a style. He doesn’t play to win the clinic battle. He plays to win the game.”
Now, nearly four months later, Crean still touts McCaffery and his success. The No. 15 Hawkeyes (19-6, 8-4 Big Ten) lead the Big Ten in scoring, scoring margin and rebounding, but it’s Iowa’s versatility that impresses Crean entering Tuesday’s game at Assembly Hall (8 p.m. ESPN).
“Extremely versatile, not just because of the depth and the consistency of that depth that they have, but because of the multitude of skills that they have,” Crean said. “They have the ability to get to the basket. They’re an excellent passing team. They combine some of the best traits when it comes to passing, driving, inside-out, shooting, spacing, pressure defense, the ability to switch, do multiple things on defense. They’re very, very hard to get ready for.
“Fran is one of the best, not only one of the top coaches in our league, but I think, frankly, one of the best coaches in the country. Because he does such a great job going from game to game doing whatever it takes to win that game.”
Crean paid the ultimate compliment to Iowa by comparing this squad to last year’s Hoosiers. Indiana at multiple points was ranked No. 1 and won the Big Ten title outright with balance and skill at every position. Indiana led the Big Ten last year in scoring at 78.6 points per game — 5 points a game fewer than Iowa’s current average — and won by a similar margin (16.5 for Indiana, 16.4 for Iowa).
Armed with the league’s top scorer in sophomore guard Yogi Ferrell (17.9) and rebounder in freshman Noah Vonleh (9.5), Crean wants his Hoosiers to run in transition. That happens to be Iowa’s strength with its athletic ability and depth. It’s a style of play that shields Indiana’s youth and it covers up some of the mistakes Crean’s blue-chip freshmen have made in half-court sets.
“We’ve got to take the speed of the game and make it work for us,” Crean said. “Bottom line is (Iowa) can do things, whether it’s pressure, whether it’s man, whether it’s zone, whether it’s switching because of that versatility, they’re a very versatile team. It reminds me when we watch them — it’s been this way all year — a lot of what we had last year with our team with the experience. The scoring, the shooting, the guys that have been there, guys that have been in a lot of hard games, but also some young firepower that brought some energy to the table.”
Indiana (14-11, 4-8) has experienced some growing pains without stars like Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo — both first-round NBA draft picks — and glue players like Christian Watford and Jordan Hulls. The Hoosiers have lost their last three and six of their last eight in unique and excruciating ways, especially at home. They gave up an 11-point lead with 3 minutes left in a one-point loss to Penn State. They shot just 25 percent and scored just 47 points in a seven-point defeat to Northwestern. Most recently, they were blown out at arch-rival Purdue.
But the Hoosiers also have impressive home wins. They handed No. 18 Wisconsin its first loss and rocked No. 20 Michigan by 11 in highly visible games. That qualifies Indiana as dangerous, especially with Ferrell running point. Ferrell scored 27 points against Michigan, hitting 7 of 8 from 3-point range. Last year he was a facilitator for his older teammates, but he’s made the transition to primary scorer.
“Now you have to go make sure your team wins by scoring, rebounding, defending, and distributing,” McCaffery said. “That is a very difficult task, and I think he’s done it really well.”
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