All about the Big Ten: Patience waning

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – He’s yet to play a game in an Indiana uniform, but Cody Zeller can’t set foot in Assembly Hall without signing autographs. Hoosiers fans high-five the 6-foot-11 high school senior as he walks through the concourse, often asking him to pose for pictures.

Saturday, about 45 minutes before tipoff against Northwestern, Indiana’s student section began chanting Zeller’s name.

“CO-dy ZEL-ler!” they yelled as the 20th-ranked player in the Class of 2011 took his seat in the stands. “CO-dy ZEL-ler!”

An Indiana signee, Zeller said the reception never gets old.

“The tradition here is amazing,” he said. “The fans here really know their basketball players. It’s obvious that everyone is looking forward to the future.”

Especially considering there isn’t much to be excited about in the present.

A sellout crowd of 17,169 fans attended Saturday’s game against Big Ten also-ran Northwestern, but the Hoosiers didn’t give them any reason to cheer during a 70-64 loss. In fact, a smattering of boos actually rained down on Indiana’s players as the final seconds ticked away.

Third-year coach Tom Crean hasn't been able to get his point across – especially on defense – this season at Indiana.
(Brian Spurlock/US Presswire)

“We suck!” one student screamed as he walked up the stairs toward the exit.

“How can we lose to Northwestern – at home?” another griped.

The frustration was certainly understandable. Indiana is just 12-15 in its third season under Tom Crean. Even worse is that the Hoosiers – who lost at home to Iowa last week – are only 3-11 in Big Ten play. With games against Purdue, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Illinois still remaining, it’s possible that Indiana could finish with a worse conference record than the 4-14 squad of a year ago.

That certainly wouldn’t do much for the approval rating of Crean, whose frustration continues to grow. Crean said he was “disgusted” with the Hoosiers’ defensive effort against Northwestern, adding that he would’ve summoned his players back in the gym for a workout that same evening if the NCAA rules prohibiting such actions weren’t so “soft.”

“We’ll be in here at 7:30 [Sunday] morning guarding and continuing to get this thing where it has to be on the defensive end,” Crean said. “I’m disappointed that a sellout crowd watched us defend so poorly.”

No one expected the Hoosiers to be in the NCAA tournament this season. People are cognizant of the fact that Crean was charged with a massive rebuilding effort when he took over Indiana’s program three years ago. If anything, most Indiana partisans have been over-the-top in their support of Crean.

Assembly Hall has been nearly full for almost every Big Ten home game. After last month’s victory over Illinois, fans gathered in the concourse for a wild postgame celebration that ended with a curtain call from Crean, whose passion can be infectious.

That’s the thing: This fan base wants to like Crean. In so many ways he seems like a perfect fit, a guy people can latch onto and root for to succeed.

But they may not be willing to wait much longer.

Indiana wasn’t pegged to finish at the top of the Big Ten standings, but no one thought the Hoosiers would sink to the bottom, either. That’s exactly where Crean’s squad is, though, heading into the last two weeks of the regular season.

Some of Indiana’s problems have been out of its control. Maurice Creek suffered a season-ending injury for the second straight year. Leading scorer Christian Watford missed three games with a broken hand, and 7-foot-1 junior college transfer Guy-Marc Michel was ruled ineligible by the NCAA.

Even so, almost every college basketball team faces some sort of adversity. By this point in Crean’s tenure the Hoosiers should have enough depth to avoid losing two games each to Iowa and Northwestern and another to Penn State.

It’s time for less talk and more substance. Instead of telling folks to believe in his vision, Crean needs to win. Otherwise it will only be natural when people begin to lose patience.

The dismal state of the program Crean inherited three years ago prevented him from landing high-level recruits. That all changed in November with the signing of Zeller, who will join a squad that will return all but one player (Jeremiah Rivers) from this year’s team.

“I can’t wait to get started,” Zeller said. “I think this program is right there. They’re that close. You can see that they’re improving. They almost won this game tonight. Last year they might have lost by 20.”

Actually, Indiana beat Northwestern a year ago at home.

With Zeller added to the mix, wins against mid- and low-tier opponents will be imperative if Crean wants to stay off the hot seat. Crean is fine for this season, but things may be different a year from now if the Hoosiers aren’t at least invited to the NIT.

LEAGUE RANKINGS

(Last week’s rank in parenthesis)

1. Ohio State (25-2, 12-2) – The Buckeyes’ only remaining road game is at Penn State. (1)

2. Purdue (22-5, 11-3) – The Boilermakers’ final four games are against unranked opponents – but three of them are on the road. (3)

3. Wisconsin (20-6, 10-4) – The Badgers’ loss to Purdue marked their 34th defeat in their last 35 games at Mackey Arena. (2)

4. Michigan State (15-11, 7-7) – Kalin Lucas is averaging 21.9 points over his last seven games. (6)

5. Illinois (17-10, 7-7) – Bruce Weber has used a different starting lineup in each of the last five games. (4)

6. Michigan (17-11, 7-8) – Five of Michigan’s 11 losses have come against top 15 teams. (7)

7. Penn State (14-12, 7-8) – Tim Frazier averages 4.9 assists. (8)

8. Minnesota (17-9, 6-8) – Blake Hoffarber leads the Gophers in points per game (14) and assists per game (four). (5)

Tim Hardaway Jr. has helped Michigan get into the NCAA tournament discussion.
(Rick Osentoski/US Presswire)

9. Northwestern (16-10, 6-9) – The Wildcats are 11-3 when they make 40 percent or more of their 3-pointers.

10. Iowa (10-17, 3-12) – Bryce Cartwright missed a layup at the end of regulation that would’ve won the game against Michigan.

11. Indiana (12-15, 3-11) – The Hoosiers’ next three games are against ranked opponents.

WHO’S HOT?

Tim Hardaway Jr., Michigan – With 30 points in Saturday’s victory over Iowa, Hardaway Jr. became the first Wolverines freshman in eight years to score 30 or more points in a single game. Hardaway went 9-of-14 from the field and made five of his seven 3-point attempts for Michigan, which has thrust itself into the NCAA tournament picture by winning four of its last five games.

Iowa – The Hawkeyes may not be the best team in the Big Ten next season – but you can bet they’ll be one of the most improved. Only one senior (forward Jarryd Cole) is receiving significant playing time. Iowa is just 3-12 in the league standings, but three of its last four losses have been by three points apiece, including two in overtime. “It’s not that far (off),” first-year coach Fran McCaffrey said of his program. “We are right there.”

E’Twaun Moore, Purdue – The senior guard hit seven 3-pointers and scored 38 points in Sunday’s victory over No. 2 Ohio State at Mackey Arena. Moore also became just the fifth player in school history to surpass the 2,000-point barrier. He now has 2,027 career points.

WHO’S NOT?

Illinois – Who would’ve thought a few months ago that the Illini would be an NCAA tournament bubble team? Bruce Weber’s squad owned wins over North Carolina, Gonzaga, Wisconsin and Michigan State and boasted an impressive mix of experience and depth. Illinois, though, is now mired in a terrible slump. The Illini haven’t won back-to-back games since early January. A berth in the Big Dance is anything but certain.

Wisconsin’s road woes – As good as the Badgers have been at the Kohl Center, they continue to struggle to make shots on the road. Role players Tim Jarmusz, Josh Gasser, Ryan Evans and Mike Bruesewitz have been particularly bad. The foursome shoots a collective 47 percent from the field and 45 percent from 3-point range at home. But on the road those percentages dip to 34 and 18.6 percent.

Minnesota – Poor Tubby Smith. Two months ago the Gophers were playing as well as anyone in the country. But then Devoe Joseph left school and Al Nolen suffered a season-ending injury. All of a sudden Minnesota appears ready to drop out of the NCAA tournament conversation. The Gophers have dropped five of their last six games. They’ll need to win at least two of their remaining four contests to remain in the postseason mix.

THREE TO WATCH

Michigan State at Minnesota, Tuesday – Both teams are on the NCAA tournament bubble.

Illinois at Ohio State, Tuesday – After Saturday’s tail-kicking in West Lafayette, the Buckeyes are glad to be back home.

Wisconsin at Michigan, Wednesday – A win would be huge for the Wolverines’ NCAA tournament resume.

Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Feb 22, 2011