LOPRESTI: Indiana colleges prepare for big tests in conference play

Know what comes after Christmas, besides new vows to diet? Conference play throughout college basketball. That’s when the season grows more urgent.

So we have questions for all 10 Division I schools in Indiana.

Start in West Lafayette, now known as Swat City, since Purdue had 78 blocked shots its first 13 games—a total the Boilermakers didn’t hit until March last season. Is Purdue really the best team in the Big Ten not named Michigan State? Or some nights, the best team period?

The Boilermakers have four players scoring at least 13 points a game, and you can count on two hands the number of teams in the nation who can say that. But a bad scheduling break: Michigan State doesn't have to show up in Mackey Arena all season.

Next, what’s harder to predict this winter, the Indiana weather or the Indiana Hoosiers? It’s hard to rely on a team’s focus when it storms past Notre Dame, smacks Iowa, but loses at home to Indiana State by 21 and Fort Wayne by 20, somehow allowing 17 3-pointers by each. (Duke, on the other hand, had only three). Archie Miller’s word was best. “Incomprehensible.” How’s incomprehensible going to work in 16 Big Ten games?

Also, since the Scott twins—Purdue/Fort Wayne’s Bryson and Indiana State’s Brenton—are now 6-0 against Indiana, how relieved are the Hoosiers that the parents didn’t have triplets?

Butler next. That thrashing by Purdue in the Crossroads Classic, was it just one of those days, or a warning of what might come in a brutal Big East? The top six teams in the league as of December 20 had a combined record of 61-8. They won’t be coming to Hinkle Fieldhouse to pet Blue III.

If Notre Dame can get outrebounded 40-26 by Ball State, 41-32 by Indiana and 42-21 by Michigan State, what’s going to happen when the Irish share the paint with the brutes in the ACC?

Fort Wayne—you’ve known it as IPFW—has caused more angst in Bloomington lately than road construction. The Mastodons certainly know how to beat Indiana (if not Akron or Oakland). Do they know how to win the Summit League, and therefore no longer be the state’s only D-I school never to play in the NCAA Tournament?

Since Ball State has cut a swath through Indiana, winning five consecutive games against in-state schools … and Tayler Persons—the Kokomo Assassin—has beaten both Notre Dame and Valparaiso with 3-pointers in the final seconds, nearly from the same spot on the court … can they turn all that good karma into a run in the Mid-American Conference? Ball State’s seven MAC tournament titles are more than any other school in the league, but the Cardinals haven’t even seen the championship game in 17 years.

The Missouri River crosses not one acre of Indiana, so it’s a little strange that 30 percent of the Missouri Valley Conference is now from this state. Then again, league names don’t mean much anymore. Not when the Big Ten has 14 teams, the Big 12 has 10, Creighton sits in Omaha as a member of the Big East and Notre Dame shovels driveways from lake effect snow off Lake Michigan, while playing basketball as part of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Anyway, about those state MVC schools.

Can Indiana State ever rekindle the magic of Nov. 10? That’s when the Sycamores torched Indiana 90-69, hitting 17 of 26 3-pointers for a torrid 65.4 percent. They have shot only 36 percent since, and gone 4-6.

Can Evansville relight the fire after being steamrolled at Duke? Before Wednesday’s 104-40 mashing—note to the scheduler: no more trips to Cameron Indoor Stadium when the Blue Devils have had 11 days to fix any problems—the Aces were 10-2 and leading the nation in 3-point shooting.

Can Valparaiso make the same trouble in the Missouri Valley it did in the Horizon League, where it won or shared five of the past six season titles? Crusader curiosity: They’re in the top 35 in the nation in rebound margin—better than Kentucky—but have nobody averaging five rebounds a game.

Finally, how will IUPUI like life in the Horizon League?

The Jaguars’ move from the Summit League means no more mid-winter trips to Fargo. Would you be disappointed? The finance people don’t mind, either. Last season’s IUPUI travel in the far-flung Summit League: A tad over 10,000 miles, with 9,400 of them in the air. This season in the compact Horizon: Just over 3,300 miles, every minute of it by bus.

“Geographically, academically, recruiting, fan base-wise, all around the board, it’s great for us to be in this league,” coach Jason Gardner said the other day.

“I think it gives our families an opportunity to travel and see road games. When you’re down and you’re not playing as well, you look up in the crowd and have family over there, I think it’s important.”

Gardner recalled the IUPUI section on such Summit trips as South Dakota State and Oral Roberts. “Really, nobody there sometimes.” The Jaguars can use any lift available, given their 2-8 start.

The Horizon League is happy, too. The conference office is on Pan-Am Plaza, so it’s nice to have a member school within 100 miles for a change.

“It seemed like the right school at the right time,” commissioner Jon LeCrone said. “Over time, we’ve had this unbelievable opportunity to host events here [Final Fours and the like], and even though IUPUI wasn’t in our league, we’ve hosted with them. So we’ve had a great relationship.”

Every Horizon team will visit Indianapolis, which makes things handier for the commissioner. Once Butler left the league in 2012, LeCrone had to hit the road to see anyone. “It was a little odd,” he said. “My travel mileage went up.”

The answers to all the above start coming soon. Butler, for instance. The Bulldogs head for Georgetown next Wednesday, three days later host Villanova at Hinkle, and three days after that go to Xavier. Seven days, three Big East opponents with a current combined record of 31-2. Butler beat Villanova twice last season, knocking the Wildcats out of No. 1 in January and ending their 48-game on-campus winning streak in February. Remember?

Rest assured, Villanova does.

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