The resurgent Hoosiers, who have suffered through three years of aftermath of the Kelvin Sampson debacle, have finally found their way in this fourth year under coach Tom Crean, knocking off Nos. 1 and 2 teams (Kentucky and Ohio State, respectively) for the first time in program history en route to a 15-3 start and the team’s first appearance in the top-25 (and top-10) rankings for the first time since 2008.
It appears, though, the grind of the Big Ten schedule is starting to get to IU as the Hoosiers have dropped two straight conference contests — a completely lousy home loss to Minnesota last Thursday and a drubbing at Ohio State on Sunday.
A key to the Hoosiers’ success this season has been their incredible efficieny scoring the basketball, especially from 3-point range. IU owns the ninth-best field-goal percentage in Division I, shooting 49.7 percent, and it is the second-best in the nation from beyond the arc with a 45 percent 3-point average, according to ESPN.com.
IU also has displayed much more tenacity and togetherness on the defensive end this season, probably the biggest difference in the program when compared to Crean’s first three years and a big reason the Hoosiers were able to upset Kentucky and Ohio State at Assembly Hall.
However, the Hoosiers haven’t produced as effectively on either end in each of its two most recent losses, particularly in the first halves of play.
In last Thursday’s 77-74 home loss to Minnesota, who at the time was the last-place team in the Big Ten, IU went just 10-0f-26 from the field in the first half and one-of-eight from 3-point range, and needed a more productive second half just to get back up to 43.6 percent.
It was even worse Sunday in Columbus. The Hoosiers were extremely flat in the first half, shooting only 27.3 percent from the field and 16.7 percent from beyond the arc. They again were much more efficient in the second half, but it was too late to make a difference by then as the Buckeyes had amassed a 35-21 lead at the half.
Defense also was an issue in both losses. Minnesota’s bigs — even without the presence of Trevor Mbakwe — got inside for scores and putbacks at will, and Ohio State’s Lenzelle Smith Jr. had a career-best 28 points, 12 of them on four-of-five 3-point shooting, in the Sunday contest.
This stark contrast bodes the question: Is this more like the Hoosiers team we can expect the rest of the way during the Big Ten schedule?
IU almost assuredly will garner its first postseason berth under Crean this season, and it certainly would make the NCAA Tournament a lot more easily than would some other programs in the country simply with similar resumes simply because of its pedigree. But is the rest of the conference slate going to be more akin to what Hoosier Nation has become accustomed to its being in recent years?