If you’ve seen highlights of Kentucky basketball games on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” this year, chances are you saw a number of breakaway dunks.
With athletes like sophomore Terrence Jones and freshman Anthony Davis, the Wildcats play above the rim more often than most teams.
But it’s what leads to those highlight-reel breakaway dunks that has Indiana coach Tom Crean concerned in anticipation of Saturday afternoon’s game in Assembly Hall against the nation’s No. 1 team.
“I think the thing that separates them right now is their defense,” Crean said. “I’ve always thought [Kentucky coach] John [Calipari] doesn’t get nearly enough credit as a coach for his defense. He’s always got a game plan. He does a great job with getting talent to play really, really hard. This is the best defensive team, in my opinion, that he has had.”
The Wildcats (8-0) have given up more than 70 points only once this season – last Saturday against No. 5 North Carolina.
Crean said Kentucky benefits from its remarkable athleticism defensively, which allows it to make up for mistakes other teams can’t. The defense starts with Davis, a 6-10 freshman who is averaging 4.5 blocked shots per game.
“If there’s a mistake made defensively, he can make up for it like nobody else I’ve seen,” Crean said. “I can’t think of anybody that can make up for mistakes that his teammates might make like he can.”
Indiana freshman Cody Zeller hasn’t been part of the IU-Kentucky rivalry yet, but he’s very familiar with his likely matchup in Davis. Zeller played against him on multiple occasions in the summer of 2010.
“He’s definitely a great player,” Zeller said. “I think each game I’m trying to improve. This is just another step in that.”
To keep it from turning into a Kentucky dunk fest, Crean said the Hoosiers may consider slowing the game down and grinding it out. The most important thing, he said, is taking care of the ball.
“To think that it’s going to be conventional basketball and we’re just going to go up and shoot over the top of this team – that’s not realistic,” Crean said. “This is not a game where you can ever think you’re going to take ‘hero’ shots and it’s going to work out for you. You’ve got to make the next pass.”
DEALING WITH THE HYPE
The Indiana campus has been abuzz with talk about the game all week, and the atmosphere at Assembly Hall is expected to be electric.
But will the Hoosiers (8-0) be so excited that they play out of control early?
“It’s not like we can have some magic words to calm them down,” Crean said. “I would want guys excited to play them.”
Added guard Jordan Hulls: “I feel like everybody on campus is buzzing a little bit, but I think we’re mature enough to keep our composure.”
Students began camping outside Assembly Hall on Tuesday before later being given vouchers to enter the game first when the doors open Saturday. No other fans are allowed to line up outside the arena until 7 a.m. Saturday.
Crean supported the way the University handled the situation.
“You want to really appreciate their passion, but you want them to be safe. … We don’t want to do anything to affect the GPA overall at Indiana.”
A WEEK TO PREPARE
From afar, it seems like the Hoosiers would benefit from a full week to prepare for an opponent like Kentucky.
Crean, however, is not a fan.
“I don’t like it,” he said. “As the week goes on, you just get that much more edgy as a coach. You don’t want to overdo it. You don’t want to spend so much time that they’re not excited about the game. … I love short turnarounds. I think the players probably like short turnarounds. But this is the way it is.”
ON EQUAL FOOTING?
There’s no denying the fact that Kentucky has gotten the best of the Hoosiers during the Crean era.
Indiana lost 72-54 in 2008, 90-73 against John Wall and Co. in ’09, and 81-62 last season. The Hoosiers were close at halftime in each of the last two meetings, but couldn’t keep up with the more talented Wildcats down the stretch.
Now that Crean has his best team in his four seasons in Bloomington, this game has a different feel to it.
“Even though the talent difference has been great, there’s always a game plan,” Crean said. “If you don’t believe you can win, at some point in time your players are not going to believe they can, either. We’ve never felt like that.”