Bo Ryan and Tom Crean split their final six meetings in the Wisconsin-Marquette rivalry before Crean took the Indiana job. The two coaches meet Thursday night for the fifth time as Big Ten adversaries, so it's not Marquette coming into the Kohl Center with Crean anymore. As the Hoosier head coach himself likes to say, "It's Indiana."
Unfortunately for Crean, this Indiana is a program that has a 6-37 record against conference opponents under his watch. Indiana's undisciplined tendencies and young rotation have made the Hoosiers the perfect Badger prey. Check out Wisconsin's margin of victory over Indiana the last two seasons: 17, 24, 28, 32. Yikes.
If Indiana (10-8, 1-4 Big Ten) had not been blown out by so many teams over the last few seasons, you'd expect the Hoosiers to have circled this date as a grudge match. As it is, they will need the stars to align to give the No. 17/18 Badgers (13-4, 3-2) a scare in Madison. That all starts with continuing the improvement they have already shown this year.
Though the win totals don't show it necessarily, Indiana is doing quite a few things better than it did in 2009-10. When you consider the "Four Factors" to winning, the differences are more noticeable. The Hoosiers are shooting the ball much better, led by tremendous improvement from sophomores Jordan Hulls (66% 2P/52% 3P/84% FT) and Christian Watford (45/40/84). Though Watford has been struggling of late, the 6'0" Hulls tops the country in effective FG% and true shooting percentage.
As far as the other factors, Indiana both gathers and gives up offensive rebounds at a similar rate to Wisconsin this year, while improving its defense into "average" territory. The glaring regression by the Hoosiers is that they are fouling a lot. If this holds true Thursday night, it may negate their advantage over the Badgers in getting to the line more frequently, a spot where UW has been deadly this year. In addition, Indiana has cut down on its turnovers somewhat, but still pale in comparison to the Badgers in that area thanks to Verdell Jones. Turnovers will be a key factor in whether this game remains competitive or not.
During Big Ten play, Wisconsin features the league's No. 2 and No. 4 scorers in Jordan Taylor (20.8) and Jon Leuer (17.6). But perhaps the brightest spot has been the emergence of Keaton Nankivil (13.2) as a third scoring option. Not only has Nankivil scored in double figures in five straight, he has been a beast on the defensive end. The 6'8" senior leads UW with 27 blocks and second in steals with 13 -- one behind Taylor. Missed dunks have just been a minor speed bump.
"There's not a mold that can explain Keaton Nankivil and I love it," Bo Ryan told the media on Monday, "because he's just so much fun to coach."
Indiana starts a three-guard lineup, which Ryan would usually counter with a smaller lineup of his own. But there is a great opportunity to go big against the Hoosiers and pound them inside. If Jared Berggren could get some minutes next to Leuer or Nankivil, Indiana will have no answer. It will probably come down to whether Josh Gasser or Rob Wilson can contribute effectively or not.
With Indiana's Maurice Creek out for the season now, the Badgers will see even more of freshmen swing men Victor Oladipo and Will Sheehey. Both have been pleasant surprises thus far in support of the Watford-Jones-Hulls trio.
Indiana fans are probably sick of hearing about how great Crean's next recruiting classes will be when they look at the Big Ten standings. Wisconsin will be a good gauge of how much -- or how little -- the Hoosiers have improved.