BLOOMINGTON – When Indiana opened its non-conference schedule in November, coach Archie Miller said he wanted his team to play a challenging slate that prepared it for the rigors of the Big Ten season. The Hoosiers have clearly done that, playing games against Marquette, Arkansas, Duke, Louisville and Butler in addition to five matchups (with a sixth set for tonight) against mid-major or small-major opponents.
The Hoosiers have not simply played a difficult schedule, however. They've won against a difficult schedule. With a victory tonight over the Jacksonville Dolphins, Indiana will finish its non-conference schedule 9-2, with the only losses against Arkansas (by a single point) and at Duke. For a team dealing with injuries and trying to work young players into the rotation, that's pretty close to a best-case scenario, even with young players as talented as the ones the Hoosiers have. Add in victories over Northwestern and Penn State to open the Big Ten schedule and the Hoosiers have a chance to reach 11-2 tonight heading into their Christmas respite.
That's an encouraging start, but the Hoosiers have to get past Jacksonville tonight to get there. On paper, this last step before the 12-day break should be fairly straightforward. The Dolphins are just 7-6 and played two days ago, losing to Notre Dame at Purcell Pavilion 100-74.
Still, the Hoosiers can't take this game lightly. They've started slowly in three straight games and trailed lowly Central Arkansas 19-14 more than five minutes into the game Wednesday night. Miller said he thought his team looked "winded" and its offensive execution was sloppy in the early going. The Hoosiers will sleep much better during the break if they can start strong tonight and put a resounding victory away by halftime.
In pursuit of that goal, Indiana will be without starting point guard Robert Phinisee, who remains in the concussion protocol. In his place will likely be junior Devonte Green, who had a huge game against Central Arkansas on Wednesday, going for 19 points, nine rebounds and six assists. He's a talented player, but has tried to do too much at times. If he stays within the flow of the offense, he could give the Hoosiers a spark. Miller said he's the team's best post-feeder.
What I'm looking for early in this game is for Romeo Langford to be a little more assertive. Langford has made a point to not force the issue in the early going, preferring to pick his spots and let the game come to him. That's good advice for Green, but less so for Langford, who is a terrific creator off the dribble and can provide the Hoosiers' plenty of energy on the offensive end. His unselfishness is a huge positive, but it would probably be better for him to be more aggressive and hunt his own shot more often when Indiana is struggling to get going. He's been a little too passive early in the last few games.
The key for the Hoosiers defensively will be to pack the lane and keep the Dolphins out. Jacksonville is awful at outside shooting and loves to get to the rim. If the Hoosiers can keep them to jump shots, the Dolphins will toss up a ton of bricks, giving Indiana a chance to push the ball off long rebounds. Either way, this will be a face-paced and entertaining game for the pre-holiday crowd at Assembly Hall.