by Kent Sterling
Not sure I’ve ever seen an Indiana team this capable of playing really well and really poorly within a four-day period.
The Hoosiers weren’t perfect against #3 Wisconsin last Tuesday. The result of that game had as much to do with Wisconsin looking a step slow as it did the Hoosiers playing well, but basketball is a comparative game, so whether the Hoosiers were quicker or the Badgers slower is unimportant. Indiana won, and that was that.
Four days later, Indiana felt pretty good about its chances as they hosted perennial Big 10 bottom-feeder Northwestern. Sadly for the Hoosiers, the Wildcats felt pretty good themselves, and held the Hoosiers to 15-60 shooting in a 54-47 loss Indiana could ill afford as they try to find a way back into the conference race.
Tonight, Indiana will try to find its mojo in East Lansing against the type of team it would like to become. Michigan State leads the Big Ten with a 6-0 record led by two seniors, and junior, and mature sophomore Gary Harris. Two of those wins were in overtime, but the Spartans win at Assembly Hall against Indiana was not among them.
That game was a 17-point shellacking that was as methodical as it was disappointing for the capacity Indiana crowd. After a 9-9 tie, the Spartans stretched their lead to nine at the half, and then used a 7-1 run to start the second half to stretch its lead to 15.
Michigan State isn’t invincible, but the first game did give Indiana fans a big case of what-if-iris. Harris was heavily recruited by Tom Crean, and the 2012 Indiana Mr. Basketball scored 26 points to lead the Spartans, and wondering what might have happened for Indiana had Harris chosen to sign with Indiana and Crean instead of Tom Izzo popped into fans’ heads repeatedly during that contest.
Adreian Payne is injured, but that hasn’t stopped the the SS Sparty from sailing through the Big Ten – winning all three games for which he has been unavailable – so if the Hoosiers are going to compete successfully against Michigan State tonight, they are going to have to contain one of the best backcourts in college basketball in Harris and Keith Appling, but this game is less about strategy than the effort and collective psychology of the Hoosiers.
When Indiana shows up ready to compete and shows the discipline necessary to execute on both ends, they can play with anyone. When they don’t, the Hoosiers look as lost as they did in losing at home to Northwestern for only the third time since 1968 (2009, 2011, 2014).
It’s way too early to decide who is at fault for the schizophrenia that seems to have infected the Hoosiers play. Is it a lack of focus from the players? Is it an inability of Crean and his staff to push the right buttons? Is it as simple as Indiana losing 70% of its scoring, 67% of its rebounding, and 100% of its leadership from last year’s regular season Big Ten Champions?
This is a young team, but there is no doubting its pedigree and talent. The doubt comes when assessing its ability to dedicate focus to the task at hand. And for Crean, the question is whether to stick to the plan and continue to work to improve, or re-plate completely with the five players best able to listen and respond to what has become some very serious adversity regardless of athleticism.
After tonight, Indiana hosts the equally baffling Fighting Illini, travels to Nebraska to play the Huskers team that beat #17 Ohio State last night, hosts #21 Michigan, and then goes to Williams Arena where the Minnesota Golden Gophers are very difficult to beat.
Just as it didn’t take a lot of imagination after the Wisconsin game a week ago to see a path to 9-9 and an NCAA Tournament berth, the specter of a 2-8 Big Ten record going into the February 12th home game against Penn State looms large for the Hoosiers.
If the least predictable Indiana team in memory can find itself and beat Michigan State tonight, they will be 3-3 and appear very capable (again) of playing the kind of basketball that will reward the faith of the players, coaches, and fans with a fun March.
Better to follow the schedule, enjoy the games, and wait to evaluate until the end of the season when the last chapter is written. The alternative is to allow the Hoosiers schizoid behavior to become contagious.
For those of you who love numbers, Indiana is a 12-point dog. Michigan State is 8-2 against the spread in its last 10 games, while Indiana is 3-5 in its last eight. My pick – do not bet on this game! Predicting the level of play from the Hoosiers right now is impossible, and losing cash in addition to your mind cruelly punishes your loyalty.