BLOOMINGTON – Indiana's season officially started more than a week ago, when the Hoosiers took on Chicago State. In a long-term sense, however, Indiana's campaign really begins tonight. After two early wins against overmatched teams, a ranked opponent enters Assembly Hall. We know the Hoosiers can beat up on lesser teams, but they can play with the better teams in the country? Is this a new Indiana team or the same old Hoosiers?
We'll begin to get the answers to those questions tonight. Marquette is a program on a remarkably similar trajectory to Indiana: the Golden Eagles have existed on the periphery of the national conversation in Coach Steve Wojciechowski's four seasons at the helm. They've won at least 19 games three times, but have only made the NCAA Tournament once. Now they seem to have a team that can break through and ascend to the upper echelon of the Big East, just as Indiana is trying to do in the Big Ten. These two teams formerly coached by Tom Crean have plenty to prove when they take the court tonight.
As I've written all week, the Hoosiers will have to focus most of their defensive energy on stopping point guard Markus Howard, who is averaging 26 points, eight rebounds and six assists in Marquette's two games this season. Archie Miller said Howard has "the ultimate green light" and he's already made nine 3-pointers this season. Indiana's young defense will have to be disciplined in help and rotations or Howard will dominate all night. With so many freshmen and newcomers playing, this will be an early test for Indiana's defensive chemistry, which is why Miller was harping on the team defense last week even though the number's seemed solid. In the second half of the Montana State game in particular, there were a number of defensive lapses that ended in wide-open misses from the hapless Bobcat shooters. Those are rotations that must improve tonight.
What has been less-discussed is how good Marquette's defense has been this season. The Golden Eagles come in third nationally in opponent's field-goal percentage, with their first two opponents shooting a combined 26 percent from the field and 28.9 percent from beyond the arc (a woeful 9 of 47 on 3s). Indiana has been a poor shooting team this season and Miller has admitted it won't make its living with outside shots, a break from recent Indiana tradition. Still, Indiana will have to demonstrate at least the threat of being able to hit outside shots or opposing teams will simply pack the lane. Chicago State and Montana State didn't have the size or athleticism to do so, but Marquette is a different story and the Hoosiers will have to shoot at least passably well in order to compete tonight.
What we have seen unequivocally from the Hoosiers this season is unselfishness and fight. This team moves the ball well on offense and it dives all over the court on defense. This is especially true of Robert Phinisee and some of the younger players, which is a very positive sign for this season and the future. This game figures to be a battle, with a raucous crowd and an opposing team bent on running the Hoosiers out of the gym. We'll see if that same passion will be there when Indiana isn't already winning by 20. From what I've seen so far, I expect it will and this could be a hugely entertaining game. Marquette has been good, but the Golden Eagles are taking a step up in competition, as well. With the Assembly Hall crowd given something to get excited about for the first time this season, I see a statement win for the Hoosiers coming.
Prediction: Indiana 74, Marquette 66