<
>

Saddle Up: Can Indiana get back on track?

Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. It strongly advises you to listen to today's podcast on your way home from work.

No. 17 Indiana at No. 25 Wisconsin, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2: Remember when Indiana was ascendant? The Hoosiers had taken down the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country (Kentucky and Ohio State, respectively) in the span of a few weeks; coach Tom Crean (or "CTC" to Indiana fans) was being hailed as the program's long-awaited savior; and a season that was supposed to be a little more than a bridge to a brighter future had materialized that brightness in the here and now. Everyone, with the possible exception of Purdue fans, was totally stoked on the Hoosiers.

Then, the cream-and-crimson-colored rocket came sailing back to earth. Indiana lost at home to Minnesota. Indiana was pummeled at Ohio State. Indiana gave away a late 11-point lead in a drastic-seeming road loss at Nebraska. Suddenly, the Hoosiers could forget about the Final Four. Suddenly, the message boards were alight with displeasure, doubt, second-guesses -- a fan base's dark id running rampant on the Web.

Since then, we haven't heard much. Indiana had a few days off, beat Penn State at home, then had a few more days off. Things grew quiet. Which is what makes tonight's game at Wisconsin so interesting. In more than a semantic way, it feels like the rest of Indiana's season starts tonight. This is the fork in the road. Which path will the Hoosiers take?

Of course, that's not actually true; each game is just a game, and this one in particular may tell us very little about the next two months of Indiana basketball. But it will be an interesting case study, because if the Hoosiers are, ahem, "for real" -- another of those silly terms we overuse in college hoops -- they'll have to prove as much tonight. After an ugly early January characterized mainly by poor shooting, Wisconsin is starting to look like Wisconsin again. The Badgers have won four straight, two of which came on the road, and (with the lone exception of a so-so offensive performance against Nebraska), their points-per-possession and effective field goal percentage marks have drifted steadily upward throughout. Jordan Taylor still isn't the Jordan Taylor we knew in 2011, but he seems to be getting closer and closer -- and, at the very least, he's making up for so-so shooting with an innate ability to get easy points at the free throw line.

In a normal year, you might instinctively chalk up a loss for Indiana here; few teams ever beat Wisconsin in Madison, let alone one with players not yet suited to the expectations of success on the road in conference play. But Wisconsin has been a bit more vulnerable this year than most. If Indiana is going to win this game, it will have to find its disruptive early-season defense. It will have to find and make good shots; Wisconsin doesn't turn you over, but the Badgers do force you to take low-percentage shots -- their opponents average the lowest eFG% in the nation -- and they rebound your misses consistently. Indiana will have to get the ball to Cody Zeller. It will have to get the ball to Christian Watford. It will have to make sure Verdell Jones doesn't have the ball in the open court all that often, because if Jones commits another open-floor turnover, Indiana fans might just totally lose it forever.

All of these things are true, but they're almost beside the point: If Indiana wants to win tonight -- if the Hoosiers have any interest in proving they're "back on track" or "for real" or "putting their struggles behind them" -- they will have to win the last five minutes of the game. It's really that simple. Unless something unexpected happens (a bad shooting night, a Badgers breakout, etc.) this is almost certain to be a close game in the final five minutes. Indiana may even be leading. Whatever the case, the Hoosiers' biggest flaw this season appears to be their handling of late-game situations on the road. The Nebraska loss was merely a symptom of a larger, long-term disease.

If Crean's team wants to cure it -- or at least have us all write about this apparent cure -- it simply has to get things right down the stretch. Anything less, and the doubts remain.

Everywhere else: For a preview of North Carolina-NC State, be sure to read our UNC blogger, Robbi Pickeral, who has your comprehensive breakdown here. ... Florida will try to avoid the same fate as Mississippi State, which took a loss at Ole Miss last week, when the Gators travel to Oxford, Miss. tonight. ... Saint Mary's has a serious road challenge in the form of Loyola Marymount, which has beaten a handful of solid teams and toppled BYU by 14 points in Provo last week. ... Boston College will be thrown to the Mike Scott-led lions in Charlottesville on Thursday night. ... Nebraska and Iowa kick off what could be a long and at least partially interesting college basketball rivalry. Or, you know, none of those things. Really, it could go either way. ... And, as is always the case on Thursday, our friends in the Pac-12 are in action, led by Washington's trip to Arizona State. Based on sheer talent, there's no way the Huskies should lose. Based on how things actually go on the court -- where the Huskies have been (and this is putting it politely) inconsistent, especially on the road, and where Arizona State has risen to its opponent a few times already in Pac-12 play -- well, who knows?