When asked his opinion on the “most surprising team” in the unpredictable Big Ten this season, Indiana coach Mike Davis couldn”t help but feel a little biased.
“Indiana,” Davis said with a chuckle.
No one else in the conference is laughing especially the three teams predicted to finish atop the Big Ten. Illinois, Iowa and Michigan State each find itself in the bottom half of the conference, while the upstart Buckeyes and Hoosiers are overachieving and taking the early lead with 6-1 records.
“It”s a different league because everyone wins at home, and it”s tough to win on the road,” Davis said.
Everyone, that is, except for the Hoosiers. While accumulating the traditionally strong home performances, Indiana has proven to be one of the leagues only road warriors stealing three games away from Assembly Hall, including a 77-66 victory at Iowa on Jan. 13.
Only Indiana (3-1) and Ohio State (2-1) have winning records on the road, which is a major reason they are leading the conference. On the other end of the spectrum, the Spartans, Hawkeyes and Fighting Illini have combined for a uncharacteristically dismal 1-10 record away from home.
Another key to the Hoosiers” success is the inspired play of co-Big Ten Player of the Week Jared Jeffries. Last season”s Big Ten Freshman of the Year, Jeffries shared his third weekly honor of the season with Minnesota”s Tavarus Bennett. Bennett scored a career-high 21 points in helping the Golden Gophers upset Ohio State, 89-71, in Minneapolis ending the Buckeyes” nine-game winning streak and handing them their first Big Ten loss in more than a year.
But Davis said that no player is as important to his team”s success than Jeffries, who has led Indiana in scoring and rebounding in 10 of its 19 games averaging 17.9 points and 7.8 boards.
Iowa coach Steve Alford thinks the sophomore forward has the entire package.
“He”s the only player in the Big Ten that can play all five positions,” Alford said. “He can shoot from 21 feet out, he can take it to the hole, he can pull up or post up, he plays solid defensively and is a weapon in transition he can hurt you in a lot of different ways.”
Davis said that Jeffries has never been a “go-to-guy” in his playing career, but is adjusting to the role. With other teams often double and triple-teaming Jeffries, Indiana”s perimeter players like Dane Fife have been able to exploit opposing defenses from the outside shooting 40 percent from 3-point range.
The Hoosiers set a school and Big Ten record with 17 treys in their 88-57 thrashing of No. 12 Illinois on Saturday, which left Indiana players like Fife admittedly “laughing” and Illinois coach Bill Self to somberly say, “the loss made us feel like we were a ways behind them.”
Iowa woes: After losing four of their past five Big Ten games, including road games at Northwestern and Purdue, the Hawkeyes are reeling right out of the conference race.
“We”re not in the title hunt,” Alford said. “So we”re going to try to finish in the top half of the league.”
Alford said his struggles stem from several factors. He”s disappointed that his star Luke Recker is still struggling to get back into shape after coming into the season overweight, he”s frustrated with his team”s inability to stop anyone defensively and is “discouraged” with the inconsistency of his veteran players.
Alford also placed some of the blame on himself.
“I”m doing a poor job communicating how I want things accomplished,” Alford said.