Here is Indiana, not even into January and facing must-win basketball pressure.
Yeah, it comes to that when you play in a powerhouse conference, favorite status is rare and you’ve lost a pair of winnable non-conference games to rip away any sense of momentum.
The Hoosiers are 9-4, one victory away from matching last year’s total, seven wins away from reaching postseason opportunity, and on the brink.
Can they get to the postseason (as in the NIT)? Absolutely. Will they? That is the million-dollar question.
Let’s take a look at what the Big Ten brings.
First, IU is 9-0 at Assembly Hall, 0-4 away from it. This is not exactly what coach Tom Crean was hoping for when he devised this user friendly non-conference schedule.
Losses at Boston College and at Kentucky were not unexpected, although a split would not have been Mission Impossible. Getting swept in Las Vegas by Northern Iowa and Colorado was a huge disappointment given the Hoosiers were, once again, in position to win both in the final minutes. They didn’t have to do anything super human, just get a few defensive stops, make a couple of free throws, set a few screens, and execute what they had already executed.
The key is doing it under crunch-time pressure, a skill they have yet to master.
Yes, if you’re wondering, that’s the same problem that torpedoed the football season.
Northern Iowa, by the way, beat New Mexico to win the Las Vegas Classic.
Anyway, the Big Ten season is here, starting Monday when Penn State (7-4) hits Assembly Hall. The Nittany Lions have lost two straight and have played only two games in the last two weeks. They will battle Iowa for the title of worst Big Ten team, although in high-scoring guard Talor Battle they have one of the conference’s best players.
Yes, coaches talk about conference parity and how there are no sure wins anymore, which is true, but in a conference that boasts five ranked teams and eight potential NCAA tourney squads, Penn State is as easy as it gets.
Which is to say, especially for Indiana, it isn’t easy at all.
Still, if IU is to get the 7-11 Big Ten record crucial to earning a NIT bid (that would make it 16-15 overall), it has to beat Penn State. This isn’t an option. If it can’t beat the Nittany Lions at Assembly Hall, who can it beat?
Consider the Hoosiers also play second-ranked Ohio State (12-0), Michigan (10-2), No. 21 Illinois (10-3), No. 17 Minnesota (11-1), Iowa (7-5), Northwestern (9-1), No. 14 Purdue (11-1) and Wisconsin (10-2) at Assembly Hall. Penn State and Iowa are the only teams IU will be favored to beat, although Purdue without Robbie Hummel could be vulnerable.
Remember, that’s COULD BE, although the way the Boilers play defense makes that a very difficult task.
As far as the road, IU doesn’t play at Penn State, which hurts, but it does play at Iowa. It also has to play at Purdue, at Minnesota, at Wisconsin, at Michigan State (8-4), at Ohio State, at Northwestern (9-1), at Michigan and at Illinois.
Yes, Michigan State has struggled this season, but it is hard to beat at the Breslin Center, although a good Texas team had the athletes to do it.
The Hoosiers will be lucky to go 2-7 on the Big Ten road and 1-8 is probably the best-case scenario. That means they need at least a 5-4 home record to reach 16 overall wins, which will be about as easy as intercepting Tom Brady.
Hey, Brady does have four interceptions, so it won’t take a miracle.
Still, this team has the talent to make the NIT and generate momentum for next season. That's the natural building progression.
The bottom line -- talent isn’t enough. It needs toughness and tenacity. It starts, and certainly doesn’t end, with Penn State.