BLOOMINGTON – Indiana cannot afford a loss tonight. There aren't very many must-win games in January in college basketball, but if Indiana wants to break its three-year NCAA Tournament drought, the Hoosiers need to pick up a victory over Northwestern at Assembly Hall.
Quite simply, the Big Ten is the deepest conference in the country. Nearly every team has either pulled a significant upset already or come close. Even Nebraska, which looked like it was in for a rebuilding season during its non-conference schedule, beat Purdue in December and took down Iowa on Tuesday. Perennial conference also-rans Rutgers and Penn State have both gotten off to terrific starts that have them thinking about March. Really, a home matchup against Northwestern is as easy as the Big Ten schedule gets this season. The Wildcats are the conference's only winless team in league play and have already lost games to Hartford, Radford and Merrimack this season. It's a rebuilding year for Chris Collins's team, which has four freshmen and sophomores among its top five scorers.
All of that is to say the Hoosiers have a terrific opportunity to rebuild some of their confidence tonight after two consecutive losses. Indiana has dropped back-to-back games after an 11-1 start and the loss to Maryland on Saturday was probably the ugliest defeat since the Hoosiers lost by 15 to Nebraska in Assembly Hall last season. After an 8-0 start that included a thrilling home victory over then-No. 17 Florida State, the Hoosiers are just 3-3 in their last six games. Even worse, the shooting woes that have plagued them in recent years have reared their heads again in recent weeks. Over those last six games, Indiana is hitting just 24.1% of its shots from beyond the arc and its season percentage is down to 30.7%, 290th in the country, after a hot start. The players the Hoosiers have brought in (at least in part) as shooters – Damezi Anderson, Armaan Franklin, Robert Phinisee and especially Devonte Green – have just not been knocking down shots as of late.
Green in particular has to get going for the Hoosiers to be successful. He is making just 28.6% of his attempts from 3-point range over the last five games and three of the ones he did make came in garbage time of the win over Maryland. He's a streaky shooter and can make shots from anywhere when he's feeling confident. Right now, the confidence he had early in the season (he dropped 30 points against Florida State, including a 5-of-7 performance from beyond the arc) has seemingly evaporated. Things could change very quickly if he sees a couple go in, so maybe those shots he hit at the end of the Maryland game weren't as meaningless as they seemed.
Northwestern will likely try to use the same strategy that Maryland and Arkansas have used to great effect recently: pack the paint and deny Joey Brunk and Trayce Jackson-Davis opportunities to catch the ball in good post position, or room to operate if they do catch it. The Wildcats will try to force the Hoosiers to make some outside shots. Of course, denying Jackson-Davis and Brunk the ball also shuts off paths to the foul line, where the Hoosiers lived early in the season. They're still ninth in the country in free throw attempts, but have slipped to 22nd in free throws made because they've gone cold from the line, as well. We'll see tonight if hitting a few shots can be contagious. If not, the Wildcats will be able to hang around and try to pull an upset late in the game, which would be a disaster for Indiana.