Saddle Up: Indiana wants it all

March, 5, 2013
3/05/13
12:27
PM ET
Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action.

Arkansas at Missouri, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN

Every now and then, you hear someone characterize Missouri as a team that can't go on the road. This is not entirely unfair -- the Tigers are 2-7 in true road games this season, their only real road victories coming at Mississippi State and South Carolina, while seven of their eight total losses have come at UCLA, Florida, Ole Miss, LSU, Texas A&M, Arkansas and, most recently, Kentucky. It is difficult to overrate the importance of home-court advantage during the college hoops regular season; it has a real, measurable impact on teams' performances. But it would be doubly hard to do so with this Missouri team.

However, my question is this: Does being a good road team really matter? This has long been the argument of teams whose nonconference schedules include nary a true road game. The NCAA tournament isn't played on the road. It is played at neutral sites, and Missouri was pretty good there -- 3-1, to be exact, with wins over VCU, Illinois and Stanford, and a loss to Louisville. The point is, if you're preparing to either pick or discard Missouri in your NCAA tournament bracket, you're probably better off doing so because of its fundamentals -- because you love all that talent on the offensive end, with Phil Pressey running the show, or because you question whether the SEC's eighth-best defense (1.005 points per trip) is good enough to get the job done in March -- not because Missouri is bad on the road, even if it is.

Anyway, that's an aside. The Tigers are at home Tuesday night, which makes bubble-bound Arkansas' job all the more difficult. But it also makes the stakes much higher. Having already beaten the Tigers in Fayetteville, BJ Young & Co. have a chance to notch a sweep over a surefire NCAA tournament team. That isn't a chief selection criteria, of course -- Arkansas' own 1-8 road record is a factor, as is a 6-9 mark against the top 100 and some pretty ugly computer numbers (RPI: 75; SOS: 79, noncon SOS: 116) -- but having a sweep of Missouri to add to wins over Florida and Oklahoma can't hurt. Big, big road test for the Hogs. If not now, when?

No. 14 Ohio State at No. 2 Indiana, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN

You might be asking: Hey, what's the big deal? When Trey Burke swiped the Artist Formerly Known as Keith Appling on Wednesday and helped seal Michigan's win over Michigan State, Indiana's redemptive work was essentially done: The Hoosiers are Big Ten champions. Sure, they were guaranteed just a share of the conference title, and there were two Big Ten games left to play, but conference titles are shared all the time. It doesn't diminish the accomplishment. It's a big deal. Cue the celebration, right?

Not so much. From the Bloomington Herald-Times' Dustin Dopirak:
Tom Crean watched the end of the Michigan-Michigan State on Sunday in his office while the assistants and strength coach Je'Ney Jackson were getting the squad warmed up for practice. When he walked downstairs to Cook Hall, he informed his charges that for the first time in a decade, and after a taxing five-year rebuilding process, they were Big Ten champions. [...]
But what said a lot to him about his team was what happened next -- practice kept going without much of a hitch. They showed they were pleased, but then they moved on.
“It’s something that we’ve been working for all year, so it’s obviously exciting for us,” IU sophomore center Cody Zeller said. “But it’s only a share of the Big Ten championship. We were right back to work to getting this win tomorrow night and having it all to ourselves.”

Dustin's isn't a story about Indiana taking its accomplishments in stride but looking ahead to bigger and better things, the type of which you hear often about likely No. 1 seeds at this stage of the season. This is a story about Indiana very specifically wanting to seal the outright conference title, about wanting to go down as the first Indiana team in 20 years -- since 1993 -- to sit alone atop the Big Ten at the end of a hard-fought regular season. It's also about providing a righteous senior night send-off to Christian Watford and Jordan Hulls (as well as forward Derek Elston). Hulls, a Bloomington native, was a Hoosier before he was born; Watford, Tom Crean's first prized recruit, chose to attend Indiana and try to rebuild it after the worst season in the program's history. There have been ups and downs, but those three players have come out on the other side and have already been part of a couple of the most successful Indiana teams in decades. And they still have time to do so much more.

There are plenty of other reasons this is going to be a great game -- Ohio State is playing some of its best basketball of the season at the right time, and its perimeter defense might be just the thing to slow Indiana's attack. Aaron Craft could occasionally draw Victor Oladipo on the wing, which would be fascinating to watch. Neither of these coaches or programs or fan bases seems to like the other all that much -- and watching Indiana go for its first outright conference title in 20 years probably doesn't seem like much. Fair enough. But you better believe IU fans disagree.

Elsewhere: Two big bubble games worth keeping an eye on tonight: Alabama at Ole Miss and Boise State at UNLV. UNLV is the only safe tournament team of the bunch; everyone else needs a win. The rest of the slate looks like mostly mismatches, but, well, by now you don't need me to warn you of how quickly such evenings can go haywire. At this point, it's practically a guarantee.

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