Tipoff: Indiana vs. Illinois, Big Ten tourney, noon, today
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CHICAGO. -- Can 20-year-old athletes get tired?
Indiana's Yogi Ferrell nodded yes. Former Purdue coach Gene Keady doubted they could, although they might think they could.
Either way, we're about to find out in the basketball crucible that is the Big Ten Tournament.
The top-seeded Hoosiers face the prospect of playing three hotly contested games in three days of the Big Ten tourney. That's the same tourney that Michigan State coach Tom Izzo calls, “One of the great conference tournaments of all time.”
In other words, the best of any conference at any time.
IU senior forward Derek Elston isn't about to argue about that.
“I'd say so,” he said when asked if the conference is the best he's ever seen it. “A lot more games came down to the wire than people expected. Even teams at the bottom of this league were getting huge wins. Look at Penn State over Michigan. Things like that didn't happen very often. Now you have to play very well every game to get a win.”
Indiana isn't guaranteed reaching Sunday's finals, heck it might not even get past today's quarterfinal matchup with Illinois (22-11), which won a 51-49 thriller over Minnesota on Thursday, but two teams will play at least three straight days, and perhaps four.
Will fatigue be a factor?
“Maybe somewhat,” IU forward Cody Zeller said. “We don't play a schedule like that in the regular season, but all of us have played in AAU tournaments with three or four games in one day. I don't think it will bother us too much if that's the case.”
Guard Jordan Hulls said the Hoosiers (26-5) are ready for the grind.
“Our coaches, our strength coaches, all the coaches do a great job of keeping our bodies fresh,” he said. “They do different things to keep us going.”
Coach Tom Crean said he began tapering off on practices in mid-January, the earliest he's ever done it as a coach, to ensure his players are fresh. And fresh or not, Hulls said, the goal remains the same.
“We want to win every game we play,” he said.
History is not on Indiana's side. It has never won this event, but then, it has never been so well prepared to do so. The Hoosiers are 5-0 against top-10 teams and beat three of them -- Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan -- on their own courts.
Yes, doing something that's never been done in school history is intriguing, but Hulls said the Hoosiers won't let that get in the way of their one-game-at-a-time approach.
“You want to win anything you enter,” he said. “It would be a cool accomplishment, but we can't focus on other games before the first one. That's our mindset.”
IU has spent the last four days since its dramatic win at Michigan fine-tuning its fundamentals and mindset.
“I love the fact Coach Crean is keeping us right on pace, not taking any lulls,” Elston said. “Right now, we're moving ahead.”
A strong Big Ten tourney showing, Elston added, would provide a big NCAA tourney boost.
“If you play well in the Big Ten tourney, your success should be higher in the NCAA Tournament,” he said.
“In the Big Ten tournament, who knows what's going to happen? It's tournament time. A lot of things go right for teams. A lot of things go wrong for them. We want to play the way we've been playing, play strong, play physical, play Indiana basketball, and see what happens. If we stay confident, a lot of good things will happen.”
Added teammate Will Sheehey: “Every game is a battle. Every time you have to bring your 'A' game. That's how it will be in the tournament. We've prepared for this for a long time. We played in a preseason tournament in Brooklyn (November's Progressive Legends Classic) which was similar in dynamics.
“It's a tough league and a tournament, but we're confident.”