Indiana Basketball: Strong Start to Big Ten Is Key for the Hoosiers

Isaiah ClarkCorrespondent IDecember 24, 2011

BLOOMINGTON, IN - DECEMBER 19:  Tom Crean the head coach of the Indiana Hoosiers gives instructions to his team during the game against the Howard Bison at Assembly Hall on December 19, 2011 in Bloomington, Indiana.  Indiana won 107-50.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

If you had told me the Hoosiers would be sporting a 12-0 record heading into Big Ten play I probably would have laughed in your face.

But they've knocked off (then-)No.1 Kentucky, and instead it looks like the Hoosiers are laughing at everyone that doubted them, including me.

Now comes the true test, however: conference play, which hasn't been too kind to the Hoosiers, who finished 1-18, 4-15 and 3-16 in the past three seasons of Big Ten play.

It's hard to imagine them not finishing in the top five in the conference after the way they have started the 2011 campaign though.

The addition of Cody Zeller has proved to be the key ingredient to their new, improved success at both ends of the court. Also, the team's maturity, unselfish play and growth in general has been apparent thus far.

The buzz on campus is that they will be dancing this year and contending for a conference title. Is it possible? Of course it is, but it depends on a strong start to conference play.

The schedule pits them against some stiff competition.

First, they will travel to Lansing, MI on the 28th to face a tough Michigan State Spartans team. Then they head back home to Bloomington for their next two—against Ohio State (Dec. 31) and Michigan (Jan. 5).

Nothing would be sweeter than starting off the new year with a bang by knocking off the Buckeyes on New Year's Eve.

When you think of a strong start you may only focus on the record, but I want to see how they play against tough competition on a consistent basis and how they come back from a loss.

Tasting defeat is one thing, but learning how to come back from it is a horse of a different color. I know this team is used to being the punching bag of the conference, so that may help them rebound quicker after a loss.

To me, a 1-2 start to conference play (a loss to open at Michigan State, then a loss to Ohio State followed up by a win against Michigan) seems the most likely scenario.

Then again, most thought they wouldn't be able to hang with Kentucky and we all remember how that turned out (Watford's 3 in case you forgot). Maybe this will turn out to be one of those seasons where they not only continue to surprise the analyst, but us fans as well.

There are a few things for certain; they will need to maintain that unselfish play, limit the turnovers and make sure Zeller gets his touches if they plan on competing for a conference title.

Anything is possible in the Big Ten, and a strong start will not only be a measuring stick for the Hoosiers but will also be key for the remainder of the season.

I am sure hoping they start things off right and continue to build on such a great start to their season.

Not only because I am a die-hard fan, but also because I already have my dancing shoes polished and ready to go.