The Kohl Center, aka "The Herb Garden," is the scene as No. 5 Wisconsin reaches the halfway point of this season's drive to a Big Ten regular season championship. Bo Ryan's Badgers (19-2, 7-1 Big Ten) return home after an impressive two-game road swing with interim floor general Bronson Koenig at the helm.
Tuesday's foe is familiar. The Tom Crean-led Indiana Hoosiers (16-6, 6-3) have not any success against the Badgers in Madison of late, but broke through with a big victory last year in Bloomington. Indiana has not won on UW's home court since 1998.
Yogi Ferrell and a cast of young faces lead a shorter lineup for IU, which expects to be at a serious height disadvantage against the Badgers. Now unranked, the Hoosiers have struggled on the road this season and are now four games removed from their impressive 89-70 home blowout of Maryland. Ben Raphel joins us today from The Crimson Quarry to give us the Indiana perspective on this matchup.
B5Q: I was honestly surprised to see Indiana played no true road games until Big Ten play. How does that even happen?
The Crimson Quarry (Ben): For the past couple years, IU's out of conference strength of schedule has been a hotly contested subject around the Hoosier State. This year, the Hoosiers took on some tougher non-con opponents, but none were true "away" games, as we lost twice at Madison Square Garden (Georgetown and Louisville), and beat Butler in the Crossroads Classic up the road in Indy. In addition, our ACC/B1G challenge game was at home this year. Thus, we had no real road games until our first B1G game at Nebraska, but still some tough non-con games at neutral sites.
I do wish we played a real away game or two before conference play started up, because neutral sites at pro arenas just don't have the same atmosphere as college arenas, but it sounds like this is how the schedule worked out this year. Also, since the annual Indiana-Kentucky game has gone on indefinite hiatus (depending on whoever you talk to, it's the other side's fault), the Hoosiers have done a mixed job of finding other top opponents to replace UK's clout on the schedule. Finally, it's just a better deal financially for IU to host a team like Savannah State, pay them the fee for the privilege to play in Assembly Hall, and have the Hoosiers walk out with an easy win. Now, I certainly don't agree with doing this often, but it's unfortunately the realities of college hoops at the moment.
B5Q: Speaking of playing away from home, the Hoosiers are part of that second-place logjam at 6-3 in conference, with all three losses coming by double-digits on the road. Do you think those losses are a result of the inexperienced roster or more a scheduling fluke of where IU has traveled so far?
Ben: I think it's a little of both. The road losses to Michigan State, Ohio State, and Purdue were all disappointing because they were all basically blowouts, but at the end of the day, they were all just one loss. I think in particular the Purdue team was a bad matchup for the Hoosiers, whereas we couldn't make a shot to save our lives against Sparty, and we couldn't stop D'Angelo Russell at all in Columbus. On the bright side, we've also won at Nebraska and Illinois, and while both teams are having down seasons, we already have as many conference wins on the road as we did all of last year.
B5Q: After losing 6'9" Hanner Mosquera-Perea a month ago, Tom Crean has had no choice but to throw five perimeter players out on the floor and hope to out-shoot teams. Describe how well that experiment has worked so far?
Ben: This experiment has been mixed thus far. After Perea was injured, the Hoosiers had less than 24 hours to prepare for Penn State, and they escaped with a 3-point victory. Everything clicked for the small-ball offense against Maryland, who was ranked 11th at the time. However, in the past three games other teams seemed to have our offense more figured out. In more recent games, we've been forced into bad shots and have been terrible in transition defense, thus giving taller teams easy looks in the lane. Even before Perea's injury, however, this has been a "live by the 3, die by the 3" team, so the focus on winning at the perimeter is not a new concept for this team.
B5Q: The Badger defense is fantastic at limiting offensive rebounds, though a few teams have had some success in that area. Indiana is pretty decent at getting second chances despite lacking quality big men. Who is the most effective rebounder on the team that the Badgers should be aware of?
Ben: I think Hoosier fans have been pleasantly surprised by the team's rebounding efforts this season. We know that the team is undersized; however, the Hoosiers have outrebounded their opponents in each of their past five games. The most effective rebounder for IU has been Troy Williams, who grabbed 12 in the Rutgers win on Saturday and has three double-doubles on the season thus far. Other than Williams, James Blackmon Jr. has also been an effective rebounder despite his smaller height, and has gotten 5.2 boards per game this season.
B5Q: Indiana is giving big minutes to the freshmen, most notably James Blackmon Jr. and Robert Johnson. Blackmon in particular started out blazing hot, then went through a lull, and now seems to be getting back to his earlier self now that media types are fawning over Ohio State's D'Angelo Russell instead. What makes Blackmon and Johnson special?
Ben: Blackmon is probably the purest shooter on the team, and when his shot is on, he's hard to stop. That being said, he's still young and a bit of a raw talent on defense, but his scoring and rebounding have provided a boost to this team. Robert Johnson is more of a glue guy, but has the ability to take over a game when other Hoosiers are struggling. While Johnson has been more limited since he injured his leg on a cheerleader's sign at OSU, he still has started most games this year and can be deadly from the 3 as well.
B5Q: Let's talk Yogi. The knock on Yogi Ferrell early in his career was his shooting but he has smashed that notion over the last year and a half. What additional steps has Ferrell taken this season that make him better? Is Yogi headed to the NBA?
Ben: Without any seniors on this IU squad, Yogi Ferrell become a leader of this team. While other players on this team such as Blackmon or Williams can be streaky in some games Yogi has been consistent throughout the season. He's shooting the ball better, but he's also benefited from not being the first option anymore on this team either, like he was last year. Overall, this has meant that Yogi has played less heroball than he did last year, and has allowed him to be more of a distributor, but also someone reliable for a clutch shot or free throw.
As for the NBA, I always assumed Yogi would stay all four years and that his height would be a detriment to a high draft pick. However, I've started to see his name pop up on draft boards. Now for all of my complaints about Tom Crean, one thing that can be said about him is that he's made sure that his players are in good standing academically, and Yogi is no different, since from what I've heard he's in line to have enough credits to graduate by the end of the year. This could expedite his decision to enter the draft, but I don't think he'd go unless his draft stock moves him up to be a solid first-rounder.
B5Q: How in the world is Indiana going defend Kaminsky, Hayes, Dekker, etc.? The Hoosiers are terrible at defending two-point buckets and that is where Wisconsin makes it's living. Will we see Crean try to invent a new type of zone defense on the fly?
Ben: This could be IU defending Kaminsky, Dekker, and Hayes tomorrow:
But seriously, the Hoosiers will need to make up for their lack of size by not letting the Badgers beat them running down the court or over them in the paint.For all of Williams' strengths, he sometimes struggles to defend the paint, and without Perea, Emmitt Holt and Collin Hartman will also have to play above their pay grade. Deflections will also be key for IU, as well as making sure that the Badgers do not shoot it well from downtown (three-point defense is something that the Hoosiers are actually decent at). In the end, IU's best defense might have to be... well... their offense. If we can get it rolling from downtown and keep it close, we may have a chance. Ultimately I think we'll give the Badgers a scare for about 30 minutes, before Wisconsin puts us away for an easy 15-point victory.
B5Q: Of the five Big Ten teams Wisconsin has yet to face this season, Indiana has played four of them: MSU, OSU, Maryland and Illinois. Which of the three contenders impressed you the most? Which team will give the Badgers their biggest challenge?
Ben: Michigan State really impressed me - they crushed us by 20 points in their place early in the B1G season and their defense wore us down quickly. At full strength, Illinois would have been a tough out, but they've been set back by injuries and suspensions this year. Wisconsin must travel to College Park to play Maryland in what could be a hostile environment, and the Terps still had a great shooting night against us even in our victory two weeks ago.
However, I think the toughest opponent for Wisconsin of these four will be the Buckeyes, who we split with this season. This will be a tough out because it's the last B1G regular season game for both teams, and it's in Columbus. At this point, Wisconsin will likely have the B1G locked up, so OSU may come into it with more to prove. They're also a team that is coached well, doesn't often quit on itself, and sticks around in all its games.
Our thanks go out to Ben for swapping insights with us this week -- give him a follow @CrimsonQuarry on Twitter. Wisconsin and Indiana tip off early at the Kohl Center on Tuesday for a 6 p.m. national game on ESPN.
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