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The Journal Gazette

  • Romeo Langford and No. 21 Indiana visit undefeated No. 2 Michigan today and have a chance to show the Hoosiers belong in the conversation with the country's best teams. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Sunday, January 06, 2019 4:10 pm

Pregame: No. 21 Indiana (12-2, 3-0 Big Ten) vs. No. 2 Michigan (14-0, 3-0)

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

ANN ARBOR, Michigan – Michigan is one of the best teams in the country. Close to two months into the season, there can be no doubt of that at this point. Hoosiers fans trying to convince themselves that the Wolverines' perfect 14-0 record is a fluke or the result of a toothless schedule are underestimating the cohesiveness of this team and the confidence and effort with which they play.

In each of their three previous matchups against top 25 teams this season, the Wolverines have won easily. They beat North Carolina by 17, Purdue by 19 and then-No. 8 Villanova – the defending national champions – by 27. Michigan demoralizes opponents. It clamps down on defense for 40 minutes and makes every possession a struggle. On offense, the Wolverines move the ball as well as any team in the country, working for the best shots. The common thread for this Michigan team is that it gives up nothing easy. Teams shoot hardly any free throws against the Wolverines and easy baskets are few and far between because Michigan almost never turns the ball over.

Can Indiana compete in this game? To borrow a phrase Archie Miller often employs: without question. Of course, it will likely take the Hoosiers' best performance of the season to pull out a victory in front of a hostile Crisler Center crowd, but Indiana certainly has the talent to play with the Wolverines.

What the Hoosiers absolutely can't afford is another slow start. A near-constant problem even during their current seven-game win streak has been 5-10 minutes of inconsistent and lackluster play at the start of games. If that happens today, Michigan will probably bury the Hoosiers in such a hole that they won't be able to climb out. That's what happened against Duke. The Blue Devils put the game away before Indiana had a chance to get its bearings. The Hoosiers will need to be crisp and alert from the opening tip today and it's likely Miller has spent the better part of the last two days reminding his team of that.

In terms of specific keys beyond a fast start, the most important is to get the ball into Romeo Langford's hands and let him create. Langford has been nearly unstoppable on drives to the rim in recent weeks, scoring or getting to the line almost any time he wants. He can't afford to be cautious and let the game come to him today. He has to be aggressive and put Michigan on the defensive early. Indiana will likely run plenty of pick-and-roll sets for him and Juwan Morgan to try to get its two stars into a rhythm early. The Wolverines haven't faced foul trouble often this year because they almost never foul. Langford can upend that with strong drives early. If he can draw attention, he'll have opportunities to kick to shooters later in the game, but the threat of the drive has to be established in the opening minutes against this ferocious defense.

On defense, it will be imperative to contain point guard Zavier Simpson. Simpson is a poor outside shooter, hitting just 28.1 percent from beyond the arc, but he is a talented creator off the dribble. Miller described him as the Wolverines' "MVP" and he leads the team with 6.1 assists per game. This is where the loss of Indiana's best on-ball defender, Robert Phinisee, will hurt. It will fall to Langford or (more likely) Devonte Green to contain Simpson and keep him from getting into the middle of the lane, where he's especially creative. If Indiana can turn Simpson into a jump shooter, it will have a good day defensively.

The Hoosiers have spent more than a month since their 21-point loss to Duke rebuilding their credibility. That they are only No. 21 after seven straight wins and a 12-2 overall record shows that many national pundits are still wondering whether the Hoosiers belong among the nation's best teams. Indiana has a chance against what is unarguably one of the country's elite teams to prove it belongs in that company. It's Show-Me Sunday for Indiana.