A surging offense has left second-year Indiana coach Kelvin Sampson impressed by his team heading into its conference schedule.
The 11th-ranked Hoosiers begin their quest for their first Big Ten championship in five years when they open league play at Iowa on Wednesday.
Sampson led Indiana (11-1) to a third-place finish in the Big Ten last season with a 10-6 record, and reached the second round of the NCAA tournament in his first year at the helm.
With the return of preseason All-American D.J. White and high expectations for freshman Eric Gordon, the Hoosiers were picked to finish second in the Big Ten this season.
White and Gordon have helped Indiana to its best start since opening 12-1 in 1999-2000, and the team has its sights set on its first conference title since 2002.
The Hoosiers go into conference play in the right direction after beating Chicago State 97-59 on Saturday for their seventh straight victory.
“That’s the hardest we’ve played, and that’s always the goal,” Sampson said. “We’re getting better. I’m the coach of the team, not an observer, and I can tell you, we’ve improved.”
Indiana leads the Big Ten in scoring at 83.3 points per game, and is averaging 90.0 in its last three games while outscoring opponents by an average of 37.7 points. The Hawkeyes, meanwhile, are second in the conference in scoring defense (55.3 ppg).
The Hoosiers went 2-6 in conference road games last season, and open Big Ten play in a hostile environment. Indiana has lost three straight games at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, where Iowa is 15-1 in Big Ten home games over the last two seasons.
“It is tough because night in and night out any team can beat anyone,” White said of Big Ten play. “We need to keep our focus. It is tough to win on the road.”
The Hoosiers and Hawkeyes split their two meetings last season with each team winning at home.
White had 23 points on 10-of-13 shooting and grabbed 12 rebounds in Indiana’s 71-64 win over Iowa last season, but had only six points and three boards before fouling out in the Hoosiers’ 81-75 loss at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Feb. 3.
White had 21 points and a career-high 15 rebounds on Saturday for his seventh double-double in eight games. He leads the league in rebounding, averaging 9.7 boards, and Indiana tops the Big Ten with 40.7 per game.
“One thing I think we have established this year is we are a good rebounding team,” Sampson said.
Gordon scored 22 points Saturday, going 3-of-12 from the field but making all 14 of his free throws. In his last two games, Gordon is 5-of-25 from the floor while hitting all 24 of his foul shots.
Starting point guard Armon Bassett finished with 13 points and five rebounds on Saturday in his first action since Dec. 3. Bassett, who is averaging 11.4 points, missed the previous three games for violating team rules.
Swingman A.J. Ratliff, who averaged 9.3 points as a junior last season, is expected to make his season debut Wednesday after missing the first 10 games because he was academically ineligible and sitting out the last two with an ankle injury.
Iowa (7-6) is looking to improve upon last season’s fourth-place Big Ten finish under new coach Todd Lickliter.
The Hawkeyes, who went 9-7 in conference play last season, are coming off a 57-50 win over Southeastern Louisiana on Saturday for just their third victory in nine games.
Junior guard Tony Freeman came off the bench to score 15 points against the Lions in his third game back after fracturing his left foot in an exhibition game. Freeman also had seven rebounds, four assists, and three steals.
“I thought he was more poised tonight, more consistent, and that’s going to be huge for us,” Lickliter said of Freeman. “He’s feeling more comfortable.”
The Hawkeyes will play the rest of the season without forward Jarryd Cole, who suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee on Saturday. Cole, averaging 6.6 points and 4.8 rebounds this season, had started the last six games.
This will be the Hawkeyes’ first game against a ranked opponent this season after losing all four of their games against Top 25 teams in 2006-07.