by Kent Sterling
If Indiana beats Penn State tonight at Assembly, legitimate hope for an NCAA Tournament berth will live. With a loss, the Hoosiers drop to 4-7 in the Big Ten, including home losses to the Nittany Lions and Northwestern. That spells tap city.
There was a time in Big Ten Basketball where the line between the haves and have-nots was very distinct. Indiana was a have and Penn State was a have-not, and minus a thrilling double overtime game in 1993, the series produced yawns.
Indiana beat Penn State by a single point for its only road Big Ten win of the season, and they need to make it a sweep tonight to clear a path to the 9-9 conference record that will be the likely mark needed for serious NCAA at-large consideration.
The schedule following tonight’s game is not likely to produce a 5-2 finish. Saturday, Indiana travels to Purdue, and then hosts #16 Iowa, travels to Northwestern and #21 Wisconsin, hosts #22 Ohio State and Nebraska, and finally wraps things up at Michigan on March 8th.
Indiana’s BPI is 60th – 13 spots south of the projected cut-off for an at-large bid. Of the Hoosiers remaining opponents, only Penn State (79th), Nebraska (80th), Purdue (98th), and Northwestern (#123) ranked lower. Iowa is #10, Wisconsin is #15 Ohio State is #18, Michigan is #19.
The good news is that Indiana has a lot of opportunities to improve their ranking because four of their final six opponents – and three of their final four – are ranked in the top 20. The bad news is that those teams are by definition tough to beat. Worse news is that over its last eight games, Northwestern’s BPI is identical to Indiana’s.
That means that if the games go by chalk, Indiana is looking at 8-10. They must hold serve against the teams they should beat – particularly Penn State and Nebraska at home – and then steal one at home against Iowa, Ohio State, or both.
Seeing Indiana as a 10 or 11 seed doesn’t require squinting and hallucinogenics yet, but with a loss tonight, I would recommend both.
The key for Indiana is the development of the freshmen. If Noah Vonleh can assert himself as an offensive leader for the Hoosiers, they have a chance to show the level of improvement needed to post a lot of wins. Fans and media have been willing to give Vonleh some latitude because of his youth, but if he is going to jump to the NBA after this season he needs to mature right now and demand the ball.
Just as tantalizing are Stanford Robinson and Troy Williams, who have shown flashes of productivity that has matched their obvious ability. If the switch flips for those two, while Vonleh gets aggressive, the Hoosiers could be a team to be feared come March.
If the status quo of Yogi Ferrell shooting and hoping remains the offensive thrust for Indiana, as good as Ferrell is, it isn’t likely going to be enough to change the fortunes of the Hoosiers.
Indiana can’t beat Purdue or any of the others that will challenge them during the next three-and-a-half weeks until they play tonight against Penn State. If they can’t beat Penn State, there won’t be much point in talking about the final seven games – at least in terms of March Madness.
Seventy-five percent of the way through the 2013-2014 season, there is still no hint as to how the Hoosiers story will end. It could be an uplifting tale of redemption or maybe a tragic tale of potential untapped. As with all great books, every chapter promises surprise but betrays nothing of what is to follow. By playing erratically, Tom Crean’s team has done a wonderful job of avoiding foreshadowing.
Whatever happens, this season’s resolution will go a long way toward determining the tenor of the offseason talk as another fascinating season approaches in 2014-2015.