After connecting on a program record 18 3-pointers against Minnesota on Feb. 15, some Indiana fans became dangerously optimistic. Looking ahead, with three out of their last five at home and the two road games against bottom feeders of the Big Ten, there were murmurs of Indiana (19-11, 9-8) going undefeated the rest of the regular season. Fast forward through losing three out of four, including a double digit loss at home to Iowa, and all of the sudden the fading NCAA tournament hopes, which just a little while ago seemed like a sure thing, have the Hoosier’s fighting for their tourney lives. As they prepare for Michigan State (20-10, 11-6), another loss could mean a second straight season without a trip to the dance and head coach Tom Crean’s seat getting even hotter.
Though Michigan State might not be having a great year by normal Tom Izzo standards, it has positioned itself to do damage in the Big Ten tournament. A win against Indiana on Saturday would ensure one of the top-four seeds and a double bye. Combine that scenario with a wealth of experience in Sparty’s big three of Denzel Valentine (junior), Travis Trice and Branden Dawson (both seniors), and you’ll find few teams who want to square off with them this time of year. Indiana has no choice, and if the Hoosiers don’t improve on their latest performances and step up to the challenge, then they won’t be squaring off with anyone this postseason.
Keys for IU:
IU has dropped seven of its last eleven, and in five of those losses, it has failed to score 70 points. The Hoosiers are at their best when the 3-pointer is falling and they’re putting up a lot of points. They score the most points in the Big Ten at almost 72 per game. From the opening tip, IU needs to play its game and dictate the tempo. That means driving and penetrating into the lane and kicking out to shooters who will be taking and hopefully making 3-pointers. Another facet will be the always aggressive Troy Williams getting to the rim and more importantly getting there under control. With no real post presence, Williams’s driving ability is irreplaceable to this team, but when he is out of sync, the Hoosiers tend to struggle.
In its first matchup with Michigan State, the Spartans held IU to 50 points in a 20-point drubbing. IU has proven it cannot win games it doesn’t feel comfortable in. Even if the game is close at halftime like it was against Purdue and Iowa, if Indiana hasn’t hit 30 yet, fans should feel nervous.
This is crucial to Indiana’s success for two reasons. As far as defense goes, you want Michigan State on the free throw line. The Spartans shoot an abysmal 63 percent and rank 337th of 351 teams in Division I. It has cost them multiple games throughout the season. They went 7 for 18 in a five-point loss to Illinois and 15 for 25 in a two-point loss to Nebraska. The mentality should be to not give up any easy baskets. Give good, hard fouls, and Michigan State will more than likely reward you with its poor free throw shooting.
On the other side of the coin is Indiana’s lack of free throw attempts in its recent losses. In this 4-7 stretch, Indiana has visited the free throw line for 90 shots, under nine attempts per game. Compare this to opponents, who have had 158 total tries – five more attempts per game. In the grand scheme of things, five points may not seem like an astronomical difference, but in the Hoosiers’ four losses by five points or less this season, the opposing team has more free throw attempts in three of them. Five more attempts per game, especially in close games, are precious. Indiana can’t afford to have such a drastic disparity even if Michigan State struggles in with knocking its free throws down.
Know what’s at stake:
After looking like an NCAA Tournament lock just a short while ago, Indiana has played itself onto the bubble. A loss here, and they are one bad game in the Big Ten tournament away from possibly being excluded from March Madness for the second straight season. Indiana needs to realize the magnitude of this game and that the pressure is higher than it’s been all season. After the preseason suspensions combined with the fact that not many people thought this team would do anything substantial, there wasn’t a ton of pressure. But to quote Ben Parker, “With great power comes great responsibility.” That responsibility came when Indiana cracked the top 25 then took down at the time No. 13 Maryland. Now with their backs against the wall, it’s time to see if this young Hoosier team can grow up fast or if it’s simply not ready to handle that type of pressure.
Listen to IUBB vs Michigan State at noon today on WIUX 99.1 FM or online at wiux.org/stream. Follow coverage of the game on Twitter @WIUXSPORTS