BLOOMINGTON – Is it too early to be looking at NCAA projections? With more than half of conference schedules still to be played, probably so. But if anyone were inclined to check ESPN's bracket projections, for example, it would find Indiana ensconced as a No. 8 seed, firmly on the right side of the bubble. After opening the season with limited expectations – any NCAA Tournament would have been welcome after a half-decade without one – the Hoosiers find themselves in an acceptable spot in the waning days of January.
But, there is still plenty of season left and Indiana has found itself in this position before, building solid early-season resumes in 2018-19 and 2020-21 before swooning at the end of the season and missing the Big Dance. If the Hoosiers want to avoid a similar fate this year, they can't really afford to lose games like the one set for tonight at Assembly Hall against Penn State.
While there are not any easy wins in the Big Ten, a home matchup against a .500 team with a first-time head coach is about as favorable an opportunity (outside of facing Nebraska) as the Hoosiers have on their schedule. With much more difficult games against Illinois, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Purdue on the docket for the back half of the conference schedule, Indiana needs a win tonight to keep its head above water. The bottom line is: an NCAA Tournament team wins this game.
And yet, when the Hoosiers played Penn State in State College on Jan. 2, the Nittany Lions gutted out a 61-58 victory thanks in large part to an 11-for-22 performance from 3-point range and a 37-28 advantage on the glass. It was one of Indiana's worst offensive performances of the season, featuring little ball movement and ending with the Hoosiers shooting less than 40% from the field and going 4 of 17 from 3-point range. It was one of the low points of Indiana's season to date and could well have derailed the campaign if the Hoosiers had not gotten off the mat and beaten then-No. 13 Ohio State in Bloomington four days later.
Tonight, Indiana is once again looking for a bounce-back performance. The Hoosiers came out flat against Michigan on Sunday following their big win over then-No. 4 Purdue on Thursday and the result was an 80-62 defeat at the hands of the Wolverines, Indiana's first home loss of the Mike Woodson Era and first double-digit defeat under Woodson to boot. Forward Race Thompson admitted Indiana got a little bit too high after the win over the Boilermakers and said much of the team's focus in recent days has been on maintaining an even keel going forward.
There has also been a significant focus in practice on defending high ball screens, which Michigan and Penn State used against the Hoosiers to devastating effect, racking up points with wide-open shots from beyond the arc. Indiana has been pretty good in 3-point defense this season, but those two teams hit a combined 22 of 39 from deep, feasting on IU's inability to defend screens at the top of the key. Michigan in particular had its big men pop out for open 3s repeatedly off of such action and the Hoosiers have worked extensively in recent days on their communication in those situations. Thompson admitted there is also an effort level that needs to be reached: Indiana's guards and bigs just have to stick closer to their men and make life a little bit more difficult for opponents.
One of the main storylines going into this matchup is the performance of Indiana's starting lineup. Against Purdue and Michigan, the first unit dug the Hoosiers a big hole; in the matchup with the Boilers, Rob Phinisee and the second unit dug them out, but they were not able to do against the Wolverines. Indiana's two best shooters, Miller Kopp and Parker Stewart, have noticeably struggled at the outset in the last few games. Woodson was non-committal about whether any lineup changes might be coming, but it would not surprise me to see Trey Galloway or Jordan Geronimo in the first unit tonight. Galloway, who didn't play the first time these teams met as he recovered from a broken wrist suffered earlier in the season, provides playmaking ability that was missing in that Jan. 2 clash, while Geronimo brings a little extra rebounding muscle against Penn State forward John Harrar, one of the strongest players in the Big Ten. Putting Stewart or Kopp in the second unit would also give that group some needed outside shooting ability. Regardless of whether a change actually gets made, it's almost certain Indiana has made getting off to a good start an emphasis for tonight.