FORT WAYNE – Life is not easy in the Big Ten, even when you are at the top.
Indiana took over sole possession of first place in the league with its 81-73 win over Michigan on Saturday, and the Hoosiers (20-2, 8-1) returned to the top of The Associated Press Top 25 and USA Today coaches poll Monday thanks to that win and then-No. 2 Kansas’ 85-80 loss to Oklahoma State over the weekend.
IU coach Tom Crean knows things will not get easier as the second half of the Big Ten schedule tips off this week.
The Hoosiers, who were the No. 1 team for the first five weeks of the season, travel to Illinois (15-8, 2-7) on Thursday and stay on the road for a Sunday matchup against No. 10 Ohio State (17-4, 7-2).
Indiana also still has road games against No. 12 Michigan State (18-4, 7-2) on Feb. 19, No. 18 Minnesota (17-5, 5-4) on Feb. 26 and No. 3 Michigan (20-2, 7-2) on March 10, plus a home game against Ohio State on March 5. The Hoosiers also still have home games against Nebraska (11-12, 2-8) on Feb. 13, Purdue (11-11, 4-5) on Feb. 16 and Iowa (15-8, 2-7) on March 2.
But playing in a conference with three teams only a game back of first place and another – Wisconsin (15-7, 6-3) – two games back will help the Hoosiers when tournament play begins, according to Crean.
It gives you an understanding of how to play a lot of different ways, Crean said during Monday’s Big Ten teleconference as he was getting ready to return from New Orleans where he watched his brother-in-law and Baltimore coach John Harbaugh defeat his other brother-in-law and San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh 34-31 in Super Bowl XLVII on Sunday.
It gives you an ability to be in a lot of really hard, tough battles. You got to win a lot of fights along the way. Every league at the highest of levels, at any level, is a battle throughout the season. You put so much focus on that, that you hope that once you switch gears into tournament play that you really do feel confident that you can handle any situation in a game.
The battles in the Big Ten will get more interesting as the teams will have rematches against conference foes in the final nine games of the regular season.
Purdue coach Matt Painter said it’s nice to be more familiar with some of the opponents during the season’s final stretch, but he didn’t see it as a clear advantage or disadvantage.
You are going to make an adjustment in certain areas when you play people, especially if you struggle a little bit, Painter said. I think it is important to go back and watch your games, and it is also important to go back and watch the most recent games.
Sometimes it can help you; some times it can hurt you when you play them that second time. You are more familiar, but so are they. You are really in the same boat.