Image courtesy of IU Athletics
Despite consecutive losses – one a home loss to an unranked opponent, one a road blowout against an opponent they had beaten a little more than two weeks ago – the Indiana Hoosiers surprised critics (and some fans) by maintaining a near top-10 ranking – #11 in the AP poll and #13 in the coaches poll.
This ranking prompted a wide range of responses, to say the least. The general consensus among both local media and observant fans seemed to be that this was a team that had enough of its flaws exposed in a short enough period of time to warrant a ranking drop to the #15-16 range. When national pundits like Gary Parrish and Seth Davis both revealed that their ballots listed the Hoosiers at #10, many were taken aback. The question posed then is the same one many are still asking: Is IU’s new ranking a fair one?
For Indiana basketball fans, the past pair of games must feel like a redux of the midseason swoons of the previous two years. Just when the Hoosiers appeared to have moved past the most significant struggles in program history, IU played perhaps their least impressive game of the season in a home loss to the Minnesota Golden Gophers and were blown out this past Sunday by an Ohio State team that they had beaten at Assembly Hall little more than two weeks before.
Even when looking at the larger five-game sample size in B1G play, Indiana doesn’t appear to be operating with the same efficiency that they had been in the non-conference slate. Against Penn State, the Hoosiers had one of the most proficient shooting days in program history – they hit 16 threes and converted them at a nearly 70% clip – and very nearly lost anyway, prevailing by only six.
The game before, against Michigan, was a similar story. Wolverines not named Tim Hardaway hit 10 of 17 threes, and Indiana shot a red-hot 56% from the floor – including 7 of 11 threes to squeak out a two point victory. Hardaway’s 0-7 performance from beyond the arc (several on open looks) was the difference-maker in that game.
Indiana is simply not playing defense as well as it was earlier in the season against less accomplished opponents, and a lot of stress is being placed on the offense to carry more of the load. They’re allowing nearly 77 points per game against B1G opponents and have been the worst points-allowed-per-possession defense in B1G play. Furthermore, while Ken Pomeroy’s advanced metrics place the Hoosiers at fifth overall in offensive rankings, they’ve regressed to 55th in defense, mostly thanks to their poor performance early in the conference season.
The import of the offense has been obvious from the start of the season, but is becoming even more apparent after a .500 start in-conference. On the year, IU is 14-1 in games in which they score 70 or more points, and only 1-2 when they don’t. In the B1G, opposing defenses have obviously been more imposing, making it harder for the Hoosiers to score as many points.
In nonconference play, Indiana tried to establish an identity as a team that generated offense with their defense, something that’s been less effective through the first six games of the conference season. They’re still drawing plenty of charges and Cody Zeller has been an adequate if not strong post defender (he’s done a pretty good job staying out of foul trouble so far) but perimeter defense has left plenty to be desired.
So, do the Hoosiers deserve their #11/#13 ranking? Their current resume says yes; no other team in the country can boast wins over #1 and #2, and the wins over Michigan at Assembly Hall and NC State on the road weren’t bad either. Their recent play though leaves room for doubt that they’ll be able to maintain that resume.
For now, it’s probably best to chalk up IU’s relatively high ranking to the same phenomenon that led to the national media being so slow to come around in the first place – they haven’t seen enough of Indiana. It’s true that plenty of teams’ flaws are beginning to emerge, but for me – someone based in Bloomington who gets to see as much Indiana basketball as anyone else – the Hoosiers’ flaws are just a bit more apparent.
Indiana is a very good offensive team that will struggle to defend the perimeter more frequently than some would like to see, but will also have the capability to outscore opponents on a given night. With this group’s experience and offensive firepower, it’s not hard to see them breaking out of their first losing streak of the year in their next two games at Nebraska and at home against Penn State.
Still, even when factoring in how staunch the B1G is this season, they haven’t looked like a borderline Top-10 team. If they take care of business over the next two games and play well enough to win against suddenly mortal Wisconsin, they’ll have a good case but it’s probably best to follow the IU players’ lead and take things one game at a time.
Take a step back, enjoy the success to this point and don’t take any games for granted.
This team hasn’t yet earned that privilege.