With just four regular season games remaining, the Indiana Hoosiers face a task they never thought possible at the beginning of the season, the need to win their final four contests just to even be considered for an invitation to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Heading into their game against Iowa on Tuesday night, IU is currently not in the field and is just barely on the fringe of being considered, according to ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi. The Hoosiers are one of the four teams Lunardi considers “The Next Four Out”, a quartet of teams that at a minimum have four teams ahead of them in the selection process for the final few spots. A loss on the road against a mediocre Iowa team on Tuesday will put Indiana in the precarious position of having to win the Big 10 Tournament if they want a spot in the NCAA tournament, a prospect that seems more than just improbable since they would have to accomplish something within the Big 10 they haven’t done all season, win at least four or possibly five consecutive games. Winning at Iowa won’t guarantee by any means a spot in the NCAA tourney but a loss will permanently seal their fate.
A few random thoughts about Saturday’s game…
When the executives at ESPN scheduled the Hoosiers vs. the Spartans before the season began, surely they thought they would have two top ten teams if not the two best teams in the Big 10 battling it out in late January. Instead they got two teams, both beset by injuries, who have spent the entire season struggling for consistency and failing to live up to some lofty pre-season expectations. Today’s game was a mirror image of the problems both of these teams have faced–an up and down roller coaster of a season that has seen their share of big victories and tough losses. The first 20 minutes saw the Hoosiers arguably play their best half of the season, taking a 44-30 lead into the break. In the second half, the Spartans outplayed Indiana, cutting the lead to as few as four points late in the game. In the end, Michigan State couldn’t overcome a 20 point deficit and the Assembly Hall crowd as the Hoosiers won their third consecutive game for the first time since December and now stand 4-3 in the conference, their first time above .500 in the Big Ten this season.
With O.G. Anunoby out for the season, the most important player for Indiana is Zach McRoberts. Anunoby’s absence means the Hoosiers lose out on one of their top defenders but it gives McRoberts, who is the best defender on the team, more playing time. Given Indiana’a propensity to fall asleep on the defensive end, seeing McRoberts play 32 minutes like he did Saturday means Indiana has a much better chance of keeping their opponents off the scoreboard and more opportunities to play to their strengths on offense.
Before Indiana fans start to press the panic button on the season because of Anunoby’s season-ending injury, we should take solace in the fact that the Hoosiers were a Sweet 16 team last season despite incurring injuries to James Blackmon and Robert Johnson. It’s a blueprint coach Tom Crean needs to use again. I have been critical in the past of Crean’s tactic of constantly shuttling players in and out of games before any offensive or defensive rhythm can be established. Just like last year, however, with a shorter bench due to injuries, employing that strategy is less likely to occur and in the end made the Hoosiers a better team at the end of last season. Let’s hope it can happen again this year.
At the end of last season, the Hoosiers best player was freshman Thomas Bryant. His defensive prowess and his ability to score in the low post made him almost unstoppable at times near the end of the year. When Bryant announced he was returning to Bloomington for his sophomore year, I expected even better production. Coming into Saturday’s game, that wasn’t the case. In fact, Bryant seemed to be spending more time shooting three pointers and pouting when something didn’t go his way on the court. Against the Spartans, we saw, at times, the Bryant from last year, scoring from the low block and making good plays on the defensive end. If Indiana has any hope of making the NCAA tourney and achieving any kind of success, they need the Thomas Bryant many experts believed was a NBA lottery pick last spring.
The secret to Indiana’s success is pretty simple. Don’t turn the ball over and they become one of the best and most potent offenses in the country. Saturday’s game was no exception. In the first half, Indiana scored 44 points on 50% percent shooting with only five turnovers, positive production that gave the Hoosiers a 14 point lead that they used to defeat a Michigan State team they hadn’t defeated since 2013. Protect the ball and Indiana has a chance to make some noise in March.