After earning a rare Big Ten road win against Nebraska last weekend, the schedule for Indiana offers no more “easy” games in conference play, so much so that the next five games could define IU’s season.
It all begins tonight when the Hoosiers (14-4, 4-3 Big Ten) host no. 11 Michigan State (14-4, 6-1 Big Ten) at Assembly Hall (8:30 pm, FS1). Last season, IU beat the Spartans twice, including an overtime win on the road in East Lansing.
The Spartans are beginning to play their best basketball after a tough non-conference schedule that included losses to Kentucky and Duke and a win at Seton Hall, one of the favorites in the Big East.
For Indiana, it’s another opportunity to prove they are an NCAA Tournament team. After narrowly escaping against Northwestern, the Hoosiers have responded with a win over Ohio State, a road loss to a tough and improved Rutgers and the win at Nebraska.
The good news: there are no bad losses left on the schedule with Nebraska and Northwestern off the schedule for the season. However, this stretch of Michigan State, Maryland, at Penn State, at Ohio State and Purdue could determine if the Hoosiers will play deep into March.
Win four or five, and IU will be a near-lock for the tournament. But win one or none? IU will likely miss their fourth straight NCAA Tournament, something that would be inexcusable.
Keys for the Hoosiers are simple the rest of the season: get to the free throw line and be an adequate 3-point shooting team. The Hoosiers are 8th in the country in free throw attempts as a team but just 232nd at attempts made at 68.2 percent.
Meanwhile, 3-point shooting has been a problem for the Hoosiers every year under Archie Miller. IU was 6-12 from 3 in the win over Ohio State, a rare solid performance. On the year, IU is 315th in 3-point field goal percentage, hitting just 29.8 percent of attempts. That would be the lowest mark for an IU team in history, marking the third straight such record, all under Miller.
With three of the next five games at home and Ohio State slumping, this is a real opportunity for IU to separate themselves from the middle of the pack of the conference. While it seems no one will catch Michigan State or even Illinois to battle for the conference title, IU could post a winning conference record and set themselves up with a nice seed. Even 10 wins in conference play should be enough to lock in a postseason berth.
Last year, the Hoosiers did too little too late to secure a spot in the tournament. This year with another talented freshman in Trayce Jackson-Davis, the Hoosiers have another opportunity to end the tournament drought.