Pete DiPrimio, sports columnist and college beat writer for The News-Sentinel of Fort Wayne, Ind., takes his best shots on the world of Hoosier basketball.

Wednesday, January 31

IU Basks In Upset's Thrill

Did you see the celebration? Did you live vicariously with the students rushing the Assembly Hall floor in the aftermath of IU’s tough-as-nails 71-66 victory over No. 2 Wisconsin?

Of course you did. Just don’t expect Badgers coach Bo Ryan to join you.

“We’d rather not have that happen,” he said about the thousands of students that rushed the court in the aftermath, “but since we took it on the chin, we have to take what comes with it.”

What Wisconsin took was the end of its 17-game winning streak and Big Ten lead. Now it shares first with Ohio State, with IU just a game behind.

The Hoosiers won the way you’d expect them to win -- with offense-wrecking defense, with rebounding, with tough-minded play and some big-time shot making from A.J. Ratliff and D.J. White. They beat the Big Ten’s toughest team at their own game and now we’ll see if they are disciplined enough and focused enough to follow this up by winning at Iowa on Saturday.

“We’ll move on from here,” Sampson said, “but that just wasn’t a No. 2 team. Wisconsin is hard to beat. They’re just a monster to play against.”

IU slayed that monster. For the moment, that’s enough.

Tuesday, January 30

Here Comes A BIG Game

Don’t tell Kelvin Sampson and the Hoosiers this is a big game, an epic game, the kind of game that could have Big Ten-altering consequences.

They’re locked in treat-every-game-the-same mode, which might be fine if you’re preparing to play, say, No. 2 Wisconsin, but is really boring if you’re trying to write about it.

Besides, does anybody REALLY believe you treat the Badgers the same as you do, say, Northwestern. Deep down where the competitor burns, you want to face the best, you want to beat the best because that is the true test.

Besides, beating Northwestern won’t impress the NCAA selection committee. Beating Wisconsin will.

Anyway, that’s just us rambling. Here’s what senior guard Rod Wilmont has to say.

“We’re excited about the opportunity to play another good team,” he says, “but it’s the same routine we’ve had all year. The only difference is they’re ranked No. 2. They’re coming to our house, so we have to play our game and we’ll be fine.”

Because of the Big Ten scheduling quirks inherent when you have 11 league teams and just 16 regular season games, IU will face Wisconsin only once. With the Badgers having a two-game lead in the conference race (Wisconsin is 7-0 to Indiana's 5-2), a win is crucial if the Hoosiers are to have any hope for a Big Ten title.

That Wilmont is willing to concede.

“We have to win this game,” he says. “We want to compete for a Big Ten championship and this is a huge game we have to get.”

And yet, he insists, they won’t get it if they make it bigger than it really is.

“We’re looking at this as business. We have to take care of business on our home court. We’ve got to find a way to win.”

Of course, the newcomers to the program, guys like freshmen Armon Bassett and Joey Shaw, or even junior college transfers Lance Stemler and Mike White, might not be able to sustain the business approach.

“For them this is huge because they’ve never had an opportunity to play a ranked team like this,” Wilmont says. “They’ll be hyped and a little giddy. They’ll be a little anxious. I was the first time I played in a game like this. But you just have to play. Calm down and play and we’ll be fine.”

Perhaps, but the Badgers are one of just two teams (the other is Virginia Commonwealth) to be undefeated on the road. They hold teams to 21.8 three-point shooting on the road, which means something has to give because IU leads the Big Ten in three-point shooting percentage (38 percent) and is second in three-point baskets made (7.95).

So what does all this mean? Easy. It’s not just another game. It’s a BIG game.

Sunday, January 28

IU Eyes Season Changing Opportunity

Has it sunk in yet that Indiana could be overwhelmed on the free throw line, as it was against Michigan with a 29-10 disparity, yet still win in convincing fashion? Has it sunk in that these Hoosiers (15-5) could be building to a grand finale?

No, this isn't a national title team, but it is one that might slip into a Big Ten championship if Wisconsin and Ohio State falter.

IU gets its shot at Wisconsin on Wednesday in Assembly Hall and you'd better believe the Hoosiers have a chance to do something special. Why? Because they play great defense and because it's at Assembly Hall, where they have been most impressive.

Yes, the Badgers are one of only two teams in all of college basketball that are unbeaten in true road games (the other, in case you didn't know, is Virginia Commonwealth). Yes, they have the likely Big Ten MVP in Alando Tucker, a good point guard in Kammron Taylor, and plenty of size and experience.

And did we mention the 17-game winning streak and 7-0 conference record?

Still, IU has dominated at home, and while it almost certainly won't dominate the Badgers, don't be surprised if by the end of Wednesday night there will be no unbeaten conference teams remaining.

Amazing, isn't it, what one year, and a new coach, can do for the program.

Wednesday, January 24

Recruit Needs What IU Provides

Eli Holman can't get to Indiana soon enough.

Who's Eli Holman? He's the 6-10 shot-blocking whiz out of Richmond, Calif, who seems to really need the kind of guidance Kelvin Sampson and the Hoosiers can provide.

Holman was wounded during a weekend drive-by shooting in Richmond and was lucky to escape serious injury. A bullet grazed his upper back.

Holman was with three friends in a Mercedes Benz. They had just pulled into a Quality Inn for a birthday party when the shooting began. Holman apparently didn't know the shooters, who have reportedly been arrested. This seems to be part of a crime epidemic that has plagued Contra Costa County's second-largest city.

Holman hasn't played all season while fighting a suspension over pushing an official during his junior year. He met a number of criteria in order to get reinstated, including taking anger management classes and dramatically improving his school performance.

However, one consequence of the shooting is that Holman will be home schooled the rest of the year and won't play basketball.

When Holman gets to IU this summer he will receive the kind of guidance (academic as well as athletic) and discipline he needs to maximize his potential. A cynic could say that Holman represents an unnecessary risk, but sometimes kids just need the right kind of environment to thrive. IU can be that kind of environment. It will be up to Holman to take advantage of it.

Start Making Maui Plans

Start making your Maui plans, but don’t rush them. Indiana will play in the Maui Invitational , but not until November of 2008. Also in the field will be North Carolina, Notre Dame, Alabama, Oregon, Saint Jospeh’s, Texas and Chaminade. The event will run Nov. 24-26.

The Hoosiers could have a heck of a team if forward D.J. White (pictured) and guard Eric Gordon are around for it, although given the ever-present NBA lure, who knows. Yes, we know it's early to be talking NBA and Gordon, who is still a high school senior, but then, when you're dealing with elite prep players, is the NBA ever far from the mind.

Anyway, IU won the Maui title in 2002 behind freshman Bracey Wright’s MVP performance. The Hoosiers have an 8-4 record in the event. North Carolina has won the Maui Invitational twice (1999 and ’04) and has a 10-2 record.

If you like your plans a little more timely, consider that IU’s game at Northwestern has been set for Wednesday, Feb. 28, at 7 p.m. It will be televised by ESPN2.

Finally, if you just can’t wait to see the Hoosiers, they will play again Saturday at noon against Michigan. Even with a victory, their stay in the rankings is likely to end next week, courtesy of Tuesday’s loss at Illinois.

But don’t sweat it. They are a victory over No. 2 Wisconsin away from returning to the polls. Those teams play next week Assembly Hall.

Tuesday, January 23

Illinois Too Much For IU

Kelvin Sampson got plenty of grief from Illinois fans (you bet they remembered Eric Gordon), although not as much as students had hoped. All signs were confiscated before the game by school officials, prompting chants of “Traitor! Traitor!”

No matter. Students resorted to the time-honored tradition of chants (“Call me Kelvin!” and “Read Your By-laws,” references to the phone call infraction that earned Sampson NCAA sanctions, was a big favorite) and boos and holding up cell phones. Getting an earful was Sampson’s wife, Karen, as well as the IU official contingent. They all were seated next to the Orange Krush section at courtside near the IU bench.

Right in the middle of all that was ESPN sideline reporter Erin Andrews. She generated her own attention, but that’s a story for another day.

Illinois didn’t have a monopoly on crowd passion. A small group of IU students -- okay, two guys wearing red wigs -- did something to earn a first-half lecture from Illinois security officials. It wasn’t enough to get them kicked out.

Sampson’s arrival generated plenty of anticipation, but Illinois coach Bruce Weber came out first at the one-minute mark Sampson came out 30 seconds later. Sampson and Weber briefly shook hands and went to their respective teams.

Did it all this affect the game? Not even close.

Illinois’ defense and intensity, however, did affect it.

The result was a 51-43 Indiana loss that almost certainly will knock it out of the rankings just a day after it made the polls for the first time all season (No. 23 in AP, No. 24 in the coaches’ poll).

That, too, is another discussion for another day.

Look For IU To Rise In Rankings

Hey, it only took half a season, but Indiana is now ranked among the elite teams in America.

Yes, that sounds a bit dramatic, but then when it comes to the Hoosiers, don't we all love drama?

IU cracked the top-25 for the first time this season. It is No. 23 in the AP poll and No. 24 in the coaches' poll.

How big a deal is this?

"With this team, it does matter," coach Kelvin Sampson said. "It gives the kids confidence."

This could be the start of a long stay in the rankings or just a brief acclaim. That depends on tonight's game at Illinois.

The Hoosiers should win for a number of reasons -- they're a better team; they're playing better; Illinois is all beat up; Sampson can take Bruce Weber in a three-point shooting contest.

Sorry. We don't know if Sampson can beat Weber, although having seen Sampson shoot, let's just say Weber would have his hands full. Weber, of course, still smarting over the Eric Gordon recruiting, is struggling with the idea of shaking hands with Sampson before and after the game, let alone shoot baskets with him.

Anyway, the Illini could be without two starters -- Brian Randle and Shaun Pruitt -- because of injuries.

Expect a rowdy atmosphere at the start, but IU should quiet things down by the end. It will win tonight and win against Michigan on Saturday so that it will enter next week's epic showdown against No. 2 Wisconsin with Big Ten supremacy at stake.

How do we know this? Hey, we haven't been wrong since 2007 started. Just ask the wife.

Monday, January 22

Look For IU-Illinois Intrigue

Yes, there’s certain to be plenty of intrigue when Indiana plays at Illinois in yet another Big Ten showdown.

Sure, much of it will involve super recruit Eric Gordon, who signed with IU after orally committing to Illinois.

But in the big picture it’s about winning, and right now the Hoosiers (14-4) are doing more of it than any Big Ten team other than Wisconsin. They have won five straight and nine of 10. They have won two straight on the road, including an impressive performance at Connecticut.

Now they go to an arena (Illinois’ Assembly Hall) where they haven’t won since 1999. They’ve lost their last five games there, mostly because the Illini had powerhouse teams.

This season, however, Illinois is vulnerable. Injuries to key players have contributed to a 14-7 record and five losses in their last seven games.

The biggest injury has been to forward Brian Randle, who has missed a number of games because of a foot injury. He’s played the last two games, but coach Bruce Weber isn’t optimistic he’ll play against Indiana.

Also questionable is 6-10 forward Shaun Pruitt, who averages 11.3 points.

“The hex that we’ve had continues,” Weber said. “Now we’re going against a good Indiana team that is playing as well as anybody in the league right now. They’re very good defensively, they shoot threes very well and they have a good post presence with D.J. White.”

White, in fact, won his first Big Ten player of the week honors. He averaged 22.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.5 blocks in wins over Iowa and Connecticut last week.

This doesn’t mean Illinois lacks talent. While it has lost three home games this year, it remains a formidable team to beat at Assembly Hall.

“They’ve had a lot of bad luck this year,” IU coach Kelvin Sampson said. “Injuries have kept them from being where they’d like to be right now.”

Still, the Illini can’t be overlooked. They lost at Michigan State by six points and at Wisconsin by seven points. They led Wisconsin 62-61 with two minutes remaining.

“Look at the games they’ve played recently,” Sampson said. “Their first half against Michigan State was as good I’ve seen a team play for 20 minutes. They could have won the Wisconsin game. They’re a good team.”

Add the intrigue and it should make for a heck of a game.

Saturday, January 20

Red-Hot Hoosiers Handle UCONN

This was the tough-minded approach Kelvin Sampson has brought. This was why he preaches not just playing hard, but competing, which means showing the resolve to handle any situation.

It means, in fact, the kind of victory Indiana produced in holding off Connecticut in a nationally televised victory.

The Hoosiers (14-4) were on the road and didn’t flinch, not when the Huskies rallied from a 14-point first-half deficit, not when Connecticut continued to hammer them on the offensive boards, not when the pressure mounted a lesser team would have buckled.

IU made the plays it had to make –- bombing three-pointers, getting inside success from D.J. White (pictured) and Mike White, benefiting from the tough-as-nails play of Rod Wilmont.

So now the Hoosiers have won five straight, two on the road, and are looking more and more like a threat to Wisconsin’s early Big Ten dominance.

They don’t have long to enjoy this. They go to Illinois on Tuesday, but these are not the Illini of recent vintage. They are young and vulnerable and, it seems, capable of breaking under IU’s relentless pressure.

Yes, Indiana will bring the pressure. It will batter with defense and tenacity. Maybe this time it will result in its first ranking of the season. If not, don't blame me. I voted for them last week.

Hey, this is why Sampson was hired. This is why the Hoosiers are thriving. And they’re not done yet.

Tuesday, January 16

IU Is Looking Good

Political correctness didn’t concern IU students against Iowa. They shouted “Stand up old people!” to get the mature crowd behind the north basket to rise and shout during Hawkeye guard Adam Haluska’s free throw attempts.

The crowd did and the students cheered. It didn’t faze Haluska, an 89.5 percent free throw shooter who hit both attempts, but it showed the crowd, as well as the Hoosiers, meant business.

The result was a 71-64 victory, IU’s fourth straight. It gave coach Kelvin Sampson a 4-1 Big Ten start, which is the best by a first-year Hoosier coach since Branch McCracken went 9-1 in his debut season of 1938-39.

“Our team was really, really good in most phases,” Sampson said.

Good enough to suggest that IU might be ready to show first-place Wisconsin how good it can be when the teams meet Jan. 31 at Assembly Hall.

Sunday, January 14

Wilmont For MVP?

What's up with Rod Wilmont? Have you ever seen a guy who can rebound like he does and yet still be a three-point shooting threat?

Let's qualify threat. The guy is a three-point beast at times, which was very, very apparent at Penn State. He kept the Hoosiers in the game in the first half with his perimeter shooting, and finished with seven three-point baskets, one off the school record. He also took 17 three-pointers, which is a school record.

Usually, when a guy is firing away from the outside like that, he has no time or inclination or positioning for rebounding. Wilmont, however, finished with a career-high 12 rebounds along with his career-high 25 points as Indiana took charge in the second half during its first road win of the season.

Coach Kelvin Sampson called Wilmont "unique" and said he'd never had a player who could shoot so many threes and still rebound like that.

Wilmont never did anything like that when Mike Davis was coaching. But coach Kelvin Sampson's emphasis on defense and rebounding and becoming a complete player is really paying off.

Oh, yes, it's also paying off for IU, which is 12-4 overall and 3-1 in the Big Ten.

Thursday, January 11

Hard To Ignore IU's Potential

You look at what Indiana has done to its last two opponents -- blow out victories over Purdue and Michigan State -- and it's hard to ignore the potential. Yes, they came at Assembly Hall, where the Hoosiers are unbeaten. Yes, IU stilll hasn't won on the road, which puts it on par with about 99 percent of the teams in America.

Yet, if the Hoosiers can sustain this level of play, third place in the Big Ten is a strong possiblity. There's only one team left on the schedule that could beat them at Assembly Hall -- Wisconsin, which comes to town later this month. Other than that, IU will cruise.

There's no reason why it can't win at least three conference road games, and perhaps more. Only Wisconsin and Ohio State seem capable of doing better.

Now the Hoosiers have to prove it -- starting Saturday at Penn State.

Wednesday, January 10

Look For A.J., Defense

Expect to see A.J. Ratliff tonight when Indiana rumbles with Purdue at Assembly Hall. Yes, the Hoosiers junior guard will have his wrist wrapped to protect it. He has torn ligaments that might require off-season surgery. For now, though, he expects to play the rest of the season.

Ratliff, who missed Sunday's Michigan State game, has been practicing this week. His injury didn't prevent coach Kelvin Sampson from getting on him about his defense and effort.

Sampson, you see, isn't the coddling kind of coach.

"I haven't done anything to pep up his spirits," Sampson said. "It pepped up my spirits when he played harder, though."

It would pep up his spirits more if IU won tonight in what looms as a defensive slugfest. Both teams play aggressive defense, especially on the perimeter. Figure the team that handles that best will win.

Also figure to see the kind of intensity that makes rivalry games so compelling. And now that both programs are good again, it should be just the beginning.

Sunday, January 7

Indiana Basketball Is Fun Again

Have you been spending your recent hours shaking your head in amazement over the huge news in college basketball circles -- Caltech finally ended its 207-game losing streak?

Of course not. You’ve been too busy basking in the glow from Indiana’s 73-51 dismantling of Michigan State.

Points figured to come grudgingly, if at all. Instead, IU played its best half of the season -- 38 points, 51.7 percent shooting, just five turnovers -- against the Big Ten’s best defense. Michigan State, meanwhile, shot 61 percent from the field, but struggled with 12 turnovers and ended the half down by 11.

Indiana opened the second half looking for a knockout. A couple of blocked shots, a couple of easy baskets and the Spartans were down 15 and reeling.

And then it was over.

So what does this mean? Well, IU (10-4) avoided an 0-2 Big Ten start, maintained its home court edge (8-0) and ensured it would have momentum going into Wednesday’s rivalry game with Purdue (12-4).

Yes, basketball in the Hoosier state is fun again.

Look For A Rugged Game

You'd better believe today's game between Indiana and Michigan State is huge. At stake is last place in the Big Ten and nobody wants that.

Check that. A lot of people from, say, Purdue or Michigan might want it, but that's not important. What is important is that the Hoosiers maintain their home court edge. They are 7-0 at home and need that first Big Ten win to get some momentum and show they can be a conference factor.

Michigan State has the same idea. It lost 62-60 at Iowa. The loss stung coach Tom Izzo enough for him to say some of his players had their worst games ever. It stung enough to bet the house that these Spartans, while lacking the talent of previous Izzo clubs, will come ready for war.

It's going to be physical. It won't be pretty. The winning team might be lucky to get 40 points. Yeah, it's going to be that rugged.

So brace yourself.

Friday, January 5

Ratliff Out For Michigan State

Don't expect to see A.J. Ratliff Sunday against Michigan State. In fact, a wrist injury could keep the junior guard out for a while.

How long? Not even coach Kelvin Sampson knows for sure.

“It’s a pretty bad injury,” Sampson said. “It’s not a sprained wrist. When you tear a ligament, it would be better if you’d break a bone. A ligament is a tough injury to overcome.”

Ratliff didn’t play in Tuesday’s loss to Ohio State. Freshman Joey Shaw did and while he scored a career-high 16 points, he also had some costly defensive breakdowns.

"Joey certainly helped us offensively," Sampson said, "but defensively is where we miss AJ. He was starting to understand how we play defense…maybe we don’t score 67 (against Ohio State), but maybe they don’t score 74.

"The area Ohio State exposed us the most was on the defensive end. When Earl (Calloway) and AJ are on the floor together, perimeter wise we’re a pretty good defensive team. When AJ isn’t in there, you have Joey and Armon (Bassett), and we’re not as strong defensively.”