BLOOMINGTON – After four losses in a row, Indiana has given away its margin for error. As it stands, the Hoosiers are as close to the edge of the bubble as it's possible to be, currently occupying one of the "Last Four In" spots in ESPN's latest projections. With four out of their next five games on the road, tonight's matchup against No. 21 Iowa has become a must-win game for Indiana's NCAA Tournament hopes.
It won't be an easy victory, of course. The Hoosiers have had their confidence badly shaken over the last three weeks, giving away a winnable game against Maryland and then looking uninterested for long stretches of defeats against Penn State, Ohio State and – most disturbingly – Purdue at home. If Indiana couldn't find the energy to compete with the also bubble-dwelling Boilermakers at a raucous Assembly Hall that was brought to a fever pitch by the return of Bob Knight, are there any circumstances that would entice the Hoosiers out of their stupor? We will find out tonight. Have four more days of rest and focus on team morale helped Indiana regain the swagger it possessed for most of January?
Even if Indiana does bring its A-game and enough energy to battle the Hawkeyes, victory will be far from assured. Iowa is red-hot, winner of seven of its last nine games and among the best offensive teams in the country. The visitors are scoring more than 79 points per game, 20th in the nation, and more than 77 in Big Ten games, tops in the league. They are led by 6-foot-11 Luka Garza, a Big Ten Player of the Year candidate and versatile big man with a plethora of strong moves in the post. He also has the ability to hit 38% from beyond the 3-point line. Garza presents similar matchup problems to the ones that Maryland's Jalen Smith created: how does Indiana avoid having its big men drawn out to the perimeter (and away from rebounding position) as the Hoosiers try to stop Garza's outside shooting from taking over the game. They never figured out an answer against Smith, who got the Terps off to a terrific start from deep and then moved inside, where he bullied the Hoosiers in crucial moments. Expect Indiana to hedge hard when Garza tries to screen for ball-handlers, in the hopes of denying any pick-and-pop opportunities. That will mean that Joey Brunk and Trayce Jackson-Davis will have to hustle to get back to the rim for rebounds and it could also mean that De'Ron Davis, who probably isn't quick enough to do so, might not see much action tonight.
For its part, Indiana will likely try to attack Garza and get him in foul trouble. The Hoosiers' early-season strategy of finding free points by living at the foul line has largely deserted it recently (Purdue shot 24 free throws to Indiana's 14 on Saturday), but it will likely be a central part of Indiana's offensive strategy tonight. If the Hoosiers can get Garza in foul trouble, they can take out Iowa's best scorer and rebounder in one shot, making it much easier for Brunk and Jackson-Davis to control the glass. Garza is a disciplined defender, however, and doesn't easily get faked into the air. Brunk will have to use every move in his arsenal to draw whistles on the talented junior.
The test for Indiana will come if it gets behind. Against Purdue, it fought for much of the first half, but when the Boilermakers took a double-digit lead early in the second period, Indiana seemed to sag, even as the crowd continued to be one mini Hoosiers run away from an explosion. Indiana is not built to play from behind, it's true, but it can't quit fighting at the first sign of trouble. The Hawkeyes' defense is vulnerable – they gave up 104 points to Purdue last week – and Iowa is only 3-4 on the road. If Indiana starts a comeback, the crowd will likely come alive and Iowa might wilt. This is a moment of truth for this Indiana team. Does it belong in NCAA Tournament conversation? Tonight's game will go a long way toward determining that answer.