Tomorrow, Michigan (13-10, 6-5 B1G) will travel to Bloomington to clash with the Indiana Hoosiers (16-7, 6-4 B1G) at Assembly Hall (1:00 p.m. ET, CBS). Both teams are reeling somewhat, with both the Wolverines and the Hoosiers having lost three of their last four contests, so this is an important game for both. A win for Michigan would keep its slim NCAA Tournament hopes alive, while a win for Indiana would keep the Hoosiers firmly in the NCAA Tournament field. So we thought it would be fun to get Indiana's perspective on this matchup as well as the brewing rivalry that is developing between John Beilein's Wolverines and Tom Crean's Hoosiers.
Therefore, I asked Ben R. of The Crimson Quarry, SB Nation's Indiana site, questions about tomorrow's game and other intriguing topics related to Hoosiers basketball. His answers are quite insightful, are very informative, and will put you in the right frame of mind when you sit down to watch tomorrow's contest. So let's give a big thanks to Ben!
Ben asked me some questions, too, so make sure to check them out here.
On that note, let's begin the interrogation:
Maize n Brew: I was surprised to learn last season, one year removed from Indiana's outright Big Ten title, that Tom Crean was on the hot seat after the Hoosiers missed the NCAA Tournament and were snubbed by the NIT. How is Crean's job security now that Indiana is 16-7 (6-4 B1G) and would be in the NCAA Tournament as a No. 7 seed according to Bracket Matrix if the season ended today? Are IU fans happy with Crean now that the Hoosiers seem to be back on track or is there more to the story?
Crimson Quarry: There's always more to the story with Tom Crean. There is a contingent of IU fans who will not rest until a certain native son leaves his professional job to come home to lead IU back to glory again (sounds familiar, huh?) In addition, some fans are still not over the Syracuse loss in 2013, or the sour way that last season ended. I think the Devin Davis/Emmit Holt accident in preseason and the early-season suspensions to Troy Williams and Stan Robinson also left a bad taste in people's mouths.
This year, the lack of size and the lack of any defense has gotten fans down. The size isn't exactly Crean's problem - we've had two big men go top-10 in the draft the past two years and another transfer to Marquette - but the defense just seems to be getting worse and worse as Hanner Mosquera-Perea has missed extended time with a knee injury. All that being said, I think IU fans should be happy with how Crean has done, having the pressure ramped up by the fanbase and being dealt a limited hand. An NCAA berth and a tourney victory or two might really take the pressure off Crean for a bit, but on the whole, he has this team in good position going into the stretch run of the season, and our 5-1 start in the B1G exceeded even the most optimistic fans' expectations.
MnB: I can tell you without hesitation that most Michigan fans are not fond of Tom Crean, especially after the stunt he pulled in the 2013 regular-season finale when he made a point to run up to former Indiana assistant and current Michigan assistant Jeff Meyer and yell, "You helped wreck the program." With the animosity there seems to be between the two coaching staffs and the drama of the most recent meetings between the two programs, would you say that Michigan and Indiana have become heated rivals on the hardwood?
CQ: I can't defend Crean for that stunt. The guy was obviously caught up in the heat of the moment (and for an IU fan, it was hard not to go crazy during that last-minute comeback), but his choice of words and timing weren't exactly ideal. But the Michigan-IU rivalry was real that season, and I had been in Assembly Hall a month before for a raucous environment as the then-#3 Hoosiers defeated the then-#1 Wolverines, and it felt like Michigan was the major competitor for the B1G throne that season. A year later, in the midst of a bad season, we did pull off a nice home win over the eventual B1G champs, but the Wolverines got Indiana back at Crisler Center this time. Both teams have had similarly timed revivals, play a similar guard-friendly style, have multiple top-10 draft picks in recent years, and have been entertaining teams to watch, so all of this has helped to develop a nice little rivalry, in addition to the coaching staff animosity.
MnB: It seems the biggest reason for Indiana's turnaround this season has been the vast improvement of its offense. Last season, the Hoosiers were No. 127 in the nation in KenPom's adjusted offensive efficiency metric. This season, they are No. 6. How has Indiana remedied its offensive issues so quickly this season? And what is the best defensive tactic a team must use to slow them down?
CQ: Last year, Yogi was forced to play "hero ball" a lot during close games (and I guess he still is, to an extent), this year Crean has surrounded him with shooters. Troy Williams can cut to the basket at will, James Blackmon Jr. has an incredibly pure shot, and Nick Zeisloft, Robert Johnson, and Colin Hartman have all been reliable from the three as well. In addition, Yogi's shooting has improved year after year as well. Thus, the offense has improved by leaps and bounds this season. The best defensive tactic? Defend the perimeter and hope you force IU into bad shots, or bad turnovers - both of which this team has had its moments with.
MnB: On the other hand, with Noah Vonleh in the NBA and Hanner Mosquera-Perea injured on the bench, Indiana has the worst defense, particularly in the interior, in the Big Ten. The Hoosiers aren't starting anyone taller than 6-foot-7 and don't have a rim protector to be found. How have opponents exploited Indiana's defensive weaknesses? And is there any chance the Hoosiers will run a 2-3 zone, which has given Michigan fits against Eastern Michigan and Iowa this season?
CQ: It's been painful to watch on the defensive side of the ball. Yesterday, I wrote about how this IU team compares on defense to other teams with great offenses, and the results weren't pretty. Opponents have started to figure out how to attack IU's lack of any interior presence, and our shooting has not been enough to overcome this. In addition, we've been matched up with road games against Purdue and Wisconsin, two teams that used their size to exploit the Hoosiers in the post, and this really exposed our weakness. I'm not sure what else Crean can really do with the lack of size on the roster, so I do see IU running a 2-3 zone or even doing some sort of full-court press during tomorrow's game to help stop the bleeding on the defensive side of the ball. At this point - why not give something else a whirl? It can't be worse than what we've been doing already...
MnB: Let's talk about Kevin "Yogi" Ferrell. Last season, he lit up Michigan in Assembly Hall, scoring 27 of Indiana's 63 points thanks to 7-of-8 shooting from behind the three-point line, and put the fear of God in Michigan fans. How has he progressed this season and should Michigan fans be concerned that Ferrell will go NOVA yet again against the Wolverines?
CQ: Yogi had a game where he was 7-8 from 3 earlier this season, against Maryland, so while I wouldn't be shocked to see it again, I'd say it's unlikely, because as I mentioned earlier, IU has more shooters for Yogi to spread the wealth around this year. In addition, James Blackmon Jr. will likely be back in this one after sitting out the Wisconsin game.
Even with the new talent, Yogi is still the heart and soul of this team, the engine that makes everything else run. He's been forced into more of a leadership role this year with no seniors on the team, but he's transitioned nicely into that role. You can tell he really cares about his teammates and has held the team together after a dramatic start to the year (whereas there were rumors of internal drama on last season's team). His improved play has led to rumors that he might go pro after the season, and while I always support a player going pro and earning that paycheck, it's hard to see him leaving after all he's committed to IU.
MnB: Let's talk about talented true freshman James Blackmon Jr., about whom Michigan fans will be interested to hear given that the Wolverines recruited him last year. How has his first season in Bloomington been? How well does he complement Ferrell's style?
CQ: James Blackmon Jr. started out his freshman season with a bang, especially a huge performance in a win against SMU, who has gone on to be a frontrunner in the AAC this year. He had a slump in early January, but has broken out of that in a big way, and even on an off-night he is good for 15-20 points a game. Blackmon has been somewhat overshadowed by two other freshman in the conference: Melo Trimble of Maryland, and D'Angelo Russell of Ohio State (who is projected as the #2 pick right now in several mock drafts). Blackmon also needs to shore up his defensive presence though if he wants to be an effective pro, and on this team, with its 244th-ranked defense, that's a daunting task. Depsite this, Blackmon still a great asset for this team, and when his shot is on, you know Indiana is going to have a fun game.
MnB: Michigan is 1-16 against Indiana in Assembly Hall since 1995 with the lone win being in 2009 when the Wolverines needed a 20-point second-half comeback to squeeze past in overtime a Hoosiers program that had just been bombed by the NCAA sanctions related to Kelvin Sampson's impermissible phone calls. I call Assembly Hall the "Hall of Horrors" for Michigan because everything always seems to go wrong when the Wolverines player there. Is there any chance you could call off the hex for just one day? Please? Pretty please?
CQ: No calling off the hex this year, I'm afraid. The streak is reminiscent of IU's struggles in the Kohl Center in Madison, where we haven't beaten the Badgers since 1998. This year was the first time Crean had won at Illinois - so all these demonstrate how tough it is to win B1G games on the road this season. IU needs all the help it can get if it wants to make the tourney, and they can start by winning tomorrow in front of the Assembly Hall crowd.
MnB: Prediction -- Which team will continue to reel: Michigan or Indiana? And what will be the final score?
CQ: If Blackmon is out again, I'd be concerned, but right now there's no indication of this. In the end, IU's shooting is too much for Michigan to overcome, and the Hoosiers enjoy finally picking on someone their own size for once. That being said, I'm convinced John Beilein is a wizard, so I think the Wolverines will keep it close, but ultimately Indiana pulls it out, winning 75-68 and matching both their conference win and overall win total from last year's team.
Once again, thank you to Ben for taking the time to answer our questions about tomorrow's meeting between Michigan and Indiana. Make sure to give him a follow on Twitter at @VT_Ben and to read his great articles on all things Indiana athletics over at The Crimson Quarry. You surely won't regret doing so.