A tough challenge approaches

MADISON - Of all the ancillary comments, tweets, thoughts or observations about Indiana's rise to prominence, not only within Big Ten circles, but also nationally with wins over then No. 1 ranked Kentucky and No. 2 Ohio State, there probably isn't one that would strike the fancy of Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan.
To Ryan, saying Indiana's only back at a prominent level because they've knocked off a couple great teams in a single season doesn't hold any water. It's almost as if he views it as somewhat of a lazy attempt to fuel fodder and banter.
"College basketball is lifeblood for a lot of people," Ryan said. "It's universal. It's a good game. That's all I know. I don't know any of that other petty stuff."
That's not to say Ryan doesn't respect Indiana, because he most certainly does. He sees that the Hoosiers, coached by Tom Crean, are clearly making advances toward returning to the top of the league standings.
But to say they're only relevant because they're winning isn't his cup of tea. It isn't how he's operated during his decades-long coaching tenure and he doesn't plan on reverting to that model now.
Instead, he'll sit down and watch film of Indiana, just as he does for each and every one of Wisconsin's opponents.
"It seems like there's a lot of the same players," Ryan, at his weekly Monday press conference, said. "They've been there. They've had the experience and they've been to every Big Ten Arena, or at least 90 percent of them. Everybody expected them to be better.
"But I haven't really broken them down the way we will by Thursday."
When some of Ryan's players spoke of Indiana following Tuesday's practice, it seemed as though that process was in motion.
Jordan Taylor and Josh Gasser spoke to the fact that Indiana is a team capable of shooting incredibly well from downtown. Its 44 percent clip from beyond the arc is enough to speak to that.
"If you've got a guy coming off the bench that shoots higher from three than a lot of guys shoot from the free throw line," Taylor, in reference to IU's Matt Roth, said. "That's tough to deal with."
Roth has played in 18 of Indiana's 20 games and averages just under 12 minutes per contest. He's shot the ball 46 times, 44 of which have come from beyond the arc. Of those 44 attempts he's hit 27, good for a 61 percent shooting clip.
He's not the only one that can shoot the ball, either.
Jordan Hulls shoots 49.5 percent from distance and Christian Watford makes 48 percent of his perimeter shots. They're starters.
Reserves Derek Elston and Remy Abell, though they're only shot 12 three's each, are shooting 50 percent and 41.7 percent respectively. Bottom line? Indiana has a crew of shooters that are more than capable of burning opponents.
Throw in the play of freshman Cody Zeller, Indiana's leading scorer averaging 15.1 points per game, and it's even more difficult for teams to slow the Hoosier offensive attack. There's an inside-outside dynamic that stretches teams defensively.
"He's (Zeller) a guy that came in and really boosted them over the top of where they were," Gasser said. "He kind of pushed them over the edge. They're a well-coached team, they play hard and they have all that talent and experience.
"It's going to make for a pretty good team."
And that's the same team that currently sits 4-4 in league play, 16-4 overall. To place some perspective on that rather mediocre league record, just look at the Hoosiers from a year ago.
That team opened Big Ten play at 2-6, with a shoddy 11-10 record to support it. But though IU was losing a lot of games, it was doing so in competitive fashion, including a 69-60 loss inside the Kohl Center.
"I feel like they've just been knocking on the door for a while," Taylor said. "I've been expecting them to break through even sooner. They have a lot of talent and they have now for a few years. I think it's just a matter of time before they put it all together.
"They have so many options."
Indiana is kind of like Iowa, a team that features a deep and very productive - - albeit somewhat young - - rotation. And that Iowa team beat Wisconsin early this year, in Madison.
"No disrespect to Iowa," Taylor explained. "Indiana might even have more talent. They've got a lot of good players from 1-through-5, from Hulls to Zeller. Anytime you've got a guy like Verdell Jones - - I don't think he's averaging more than seven or eight points - - he's been a 15-point scorer before.
"Anytime you've got a team like that it just kind of shows how much talent you have."
So now that Indiana is looking more and more like a NCAA tournament team - - its resume is essentially unmatched so far - - it seems as though they carry a little more weight to their name.
Bo Ryan might not think so, simply because he's very close to the situation and carries too much respect for each and every opponent he faces, but it's true. With the traditional powers such as Indiana playing well, or at least better in comparison to recent years, it makes for a much more fun conference race.
Thursday night's game will probably have the environment to back it up.
"Anytime you have multiple teams that are up there fighting with each other it always make the league a lot more interesting and a lot more fun to watch," Gasser said. "Whenever you've got Michigan State, Purdue, Indiana, Ohio State and us and all those teams (playing well)…having good teams every year is going to make the league a lot more fun."