Twice this season, wins over Iowa have presented Indiana with an opportunity for a drastic shift in momentum.
The first time, the Hoosiers didn’t ride that horse well. IU flipped the script after a crushing 81-69 loss to rival Purdue, claiming an 81-69 win at Iowa, but then followed that with nail-biting losses to Rutgers and Illinois. The road to the NCAA tournament was looking all too slim.
A second time around, the circumstances are different. Another win over a top-10 Hawkeyes squad doesn’t erase all of the close losses, but it does brighten the path. Can the Hoosiers (10-8, 5-6 Big Ten) still get to nine wins in conference, as they did last year? Could they even reach 10 for the first time in Archie Miller’s tenure?
It’s possible. But it’s going to require a level of consistency the Hoosiers haven’t displayed quite yet.
A must-win at Northwestern
This is just the nature of the Hoosiers’ season now. Their backs are against a metaphorical wall. So even if Sunday’s win over Iowa seemed like a must-win, Wednesday’s contest at Northwestern is equally as important.
IU can’t squander this opportunity. While the Wildcats were one of the darlings of the Big Ten’s early season, beating Michigan State, IU, and Ohio State to open their conference slate, they have now posted nine losses in a row. In the NET rankings, Northwestern has dropped to No. 85. IU sits at No. 48.
The stain the Wildcats left on the Hoosiers’ resume is bad enough. It’s now classified as a “Quad 3” defeat, or a loss to a team ranked between No. 76-160 at home, or No. 101-200 on a neutral site, or No. 136-240 away. A loss on the road wouldn’t be as bad, counting as a “Quad 2,” but it would still weaken IU’s argument for a tournament bid.
IU has come up short a ton versus good teams, posting a 3-7 record versus Quad 1 opponents. But the Hoosiers are 3-0 versus the Quad 2 tier and 2-1 versus Quad 3. A loss in both the Quad 2 and Quad 3 rungs would sting a bit.
A loss to a floundering Northwestern squad would also underline and bold how inconsistent the Hoosiers have been, adding to a stat that got a lot of play after IU’s first Iowa win and subsequent defeat. The Hoosiers are 2-9 in games following wins over Associated Press top 25 teams.
Can the Hoosiers gain steam?
If the Hoosiers beat Northwestern, they will post back-to-back wins for just the second time in Big Ten play. IU followed an overtime win over Penn State with a victory over Maryland during a homestand. But that was it.
It won’t be easy to keep momentum this time, either. A road swing will start in Evanston and continue with a Saturday contest at Ohio State, a team that’s 9-1 at home. IU will then return to Bloomington to face Minnesota and Michigan State, two teams that currently sit below the Hoosiers in the conference standings.
It’s not a question of whether the Hoosiers can play with Ohio State. They have played with just about every team on their schedule. It’s just about whether IU can maintain the level of defensive intensity necessary, which won the day versus Iowa, twice, and whether the Hoosiers can make enough shots to pull off another upset.
Minnesota and Michigan State, in particular, are more winnable games if the Hoosiers are sound defensively. The Gophers rank last in the Big Ten in field goal percentage, making just 40.7 percent of their shots. Michigan State hits 42.5 percent, good for 11th in the league.
In this next stretch of games, IU has a chance to lock down some wins before revenge dates with Rutgers and Purdue, as well as two contests with the Big Ten’s frontrunner, Michigan, if postponements with the Spartans and Wolverines are rescheduled, as expected.
Rutgers seems to be ascending, winners of four straight. Michigan has looked irrepressible at times. Purdue has an eight-game winning streak over IU. These games aren’t unwinnable. But the Hoosiers can’t keep ping-ponging between victory and defeat in the next handful of games, because the slate doesn’t get any easier.
Why will this be different?
Again, the Hoosiers have been here before. More than just the last post-Iowa defeat, it’s been a rollercoaster season.
Beat Providence, lose badly to Texas. Beat Stanford, lose to Florida State in overtime. Beat Butler, fall to Northwestern to start the Big Ten season.
Expecting anything but ups and downs from this team seems to be approaching that well-cited definition of insanity. But are there reasons, within reason, to believe the Hoosiers can now string together some wins?
There are. For one, the Hoosiers are starting to get valuable contributions from the freshman class. Namely, Khristian Lander has started to come on.
“He’s saving us in a couple of games this week. Especially (today), he made plays for us,” Miller said. “A month ago, he was really struggling.”
The freshman guard, who skipped his senior year of high school to join the Hoosiers, just didn’t seem ready early on. He hit seven of his first 32 shots, averaging about seven minutes per game. Now he’s played 46 of his season’s 156 minutes in the last three contests. He’s knocked down five of his 11 3-pointers in those outings.
With Lander now getting double-digit minutes, IU has utilized all four of its freshmen for 10-plus minutes in each of the last two games. It can be argued IU was at its best Sunday during stretches where Lander, Anthony Leal, and Trey Galloway were all in the backcourt. Plus, four-man Jordan Geronimo is 8-of-10 from the field in his last four games, including a 3-of-5 effort Sunday.
Early in the conference season, Miller talked about playing a deeper bench but didn’t really follow through. Now, he’s putting trust in his freshmen, and they are rewarding him.
“As we continue to grow, this is a month where different players can really emerge,” Miller said. “This is the month where the games mean the most.”
A deeper team could have just a little bit more in the tank late in games. It also keeps the Hoosiers in it when the starters don’t have a hot hand, as was the case Sunday, with Rob Phinisee, Armaan Franklin, and Al Durham finishing a combined 3-of-26 from the field.
Pair a deeper backcourt with frontcourt stalwarts Race Thompson and Trayce Jackson-Davis, and the Hoosiers have the pieces to climb late in the season. The margin for error is just so small, and it comes down to little things.
Protect the ball, for one. In four out of the Hoosiers’ last six games, they have kept their turnovers to single digits. Pair that with solid defense — they have held Iowa to their two lowest point outputs of the season — and the Hoosiers can become a dangerous team.
It’s just a wait to see if they will. More consistently so.
“We’re going to have to stay with it, keep grinding away,” Miller said. “It’s a league of inches, but if you get a win in this league, man, it means a lot.”