FORT WAYNE – Tom Crean remembers when he first took over the Indiana basketball program and his team had to scratch, claw and do everything it could just to be competitive.
Those days are gone as Indiana (20-1, 8-1 Big Ten) travels to play Illinois (15-8, 2-7) tonight.
The Hoosiers returned to the top spot in The Associated Press Top 25 this week, and they hold sole possession of first place in the Big Ten as the second half of conference play begins.
While it is no longer a struggle for IU just to compete, Crean said the Hoosiers remember how hard it was to get to this level and that regaining the No. 1 ranking the team held for the first five weeks of the season will not keep Indiana from trying to get better.
As you get better, it is always making sure they appreciate how hard it is to be in a spot like this, and the reason that they are is their work ethic is so strong, Crean said. They take nothing for granted. And they keep building on a confident mindset and not an arrogant mindset. I think our job as coaches is to make sure we are building that, and that they are seeing that through us.
Our guys appreciate winning. They appreciate the task that it is. I think because our older guys have been through so many hard times, they appreciate it that much more. And I think our younger guys were raised on winning. Guys like (Kevin) Yogi (Ferrell), Cody (Zeller), Remy Abell, those guys were really raised on winning, and that helps.
A struggling Illini team will not be helped by having the top team in the nation come into their arena.
Illinois has lost six of its last seven games, and coach John Groce said his team has to get better on defense, especially in the second half.
In Illinois’ 80-75 loss at Michigan State, the Spartans shot 87.5 percent in the second half. In Sunday’s 74-68 home loss to Wisconsin, the Badgers shot 55.6 percent in the second half.
I don’t like our positioning, I don’t like numerous things, Groce said of his defense.
We got to be better. At this point, in this stage of the game, as much as we rep that stuff, we should know what we are doing and we should execute it better.
Illinois’ ability to execute on defense will be challenged by Indiana.
The Hoosiers lead the Big Ten in scoring, averaging 83.8 points, and they have two of conference’s top 10 scorers. Zeller is fourth in scoring, averaging 16.3 points, and Victor Oladipo is 10th, averaging 14 points.
They are a really good basketball team, Groce said. They are well-coached. They’ve got a lot of answers. They’ve got size. They’ve got depth. They’ve got shooting. They’ve got point guard play. I think they are really good at both ends of the floor.