IU men’s basketball’s regular season Big Ten championship defense begins Wednesday night when the Hoosiers welcome the Nebraska Cornhuskers into Simon Skojdt Assembly Hall to kick off the conference schedule.
Defending its home court and going 9-0 in Big Ten play at Assembly Hall a season ago was a vital part to IU winning its second conference title in four years. The Hoosiers won their Big Ten home games by an average of nearly 16 points last year and look to build upon their 26-game home win streak.
With one nonconference tilt left against No. 6 Louisville on New Years Eve in Indianapolis, the Hoosiers will have to focus on a pair of Cornhusker guards if they want to start Big Ten play with a win.
“They are very good off the dribble. They are really, really attacking off the dribble with Glynn Watson and Tai Webster,” IU Coach Tom Crean said. “I think their ball movement is excellent and they drive to get fouled. We have to have great awareness and we have to give that cushion, defensively, not just because of how the rules are but because these guys are very adept at creating contact.”
Nebraska limps into Big Ten play with a record of 6-6, losing six of its last eight games while leaning heavily on the production on Watson and Webster. The two guards combine to average nearly 30 points a game for the Cornhuskers with both shooting over 44-percent from the field and over 34-percent from beyond the arc.
Aside from Watson and Webb, big man Ed Morrow Jr. is the only other Cornhusker that’s averaging double digits. They’re shooting just 29-percent from 3-point land as a team and compared to last year, defending the 3-point line is an aspect where IU is trending upward this season entering Big Ten play.
IU has been much more consistent on the defensive end of the floor, which helped in wins over Kansas and North Carolina, and are third best in the nation at defending the long ball. The Hoosiers allow an average of 0.941 points per possession on defense while scoring the 10th most points per possession in the country at an average of 1.159.
The Hoosiers can score against any team in the nation, but when the defense is clicking as well, that’s when they start to find success.
“We’ve just been focused on taking that away from teams and not letting guys get in certain areas where they can get open shots,” junior guard Robert Johnson said. “As well as having really active hands are a couple things we’ve really been focusing on.”
Johnson and fellow junior guard James Blackmon Jr. have been instrumental in leading the Hoosiers not only in scoring, but vocally too. IU has gained great contribution from its frontcourt as well with sophomore forwards Thomas Bryant, OG Anunoby and Juwan Morgan, leading the nation in rebound margin, but a strong backcourt that can shoot the ball ultimately remains the focus for Crean’s squad.
The Hoosiers have seen a handful of tough games in nonconference play, but have also faced eight teams ranked 250 or lower in the KenPom rankings. Blackmon Jr., who missed all of last year’s Big Ten season because of knee surgery, feels like the nonconference opponents helped IU get better, but now there’s going to be a challenge every night the Hoosiers hit the court until their season ends.
“I feel like it prepared us really well,” Blackmon Jr. said. “We had a lot of big games, a lot of good competition, so going forward we just want to focus on one game at a time cause we know that every night, we’re in for a battle.”