Indiana is coming off one of its worst weeks during the Tom Crean era. The Hoosiers, once ranked as high as No. 3 in the national polls, have fallen to 4-5 in Big Ten play after Thursday’s 90-60 loss at Michigan and Sunday’s 68-55 defeat at Northwestern.
After the Hoosiers knocked off North Carolina on Nov. 30, Indiana fans wondered if this team was good enough to get to an Elite Eight or a Final Four.
Now, the question is: Will the Hoosiers even make the NCAA Tournament at all?
That’s how bad things have gotten for the Hoosiers, who are just 14-8 overall after opening the season 8-1. For all the non-math majors out there, that means Indiana has lost seven of its last 13 games, with zero of the six wins coming against teams ranked in Ken Pomeroy‘s Top 50.
Pomeroy projects the Hoosiers to finish 18-13 overall and 8-10 in conference play. His projected wins are:
- Feb. 1: 80-71 vs. Penn State, 81% chance of victory
- Feb. 12: 74-71 vs. Michigan, 61% chance of victory
- Feb. 21: 82-80 vs. Iowa, 57% chance of victory
- Feb. 25: 73-72 vs. Northwestern, 55% chance of victory
If that projection holds true and the Hoosiers do finish 18-13, they’d be squarely on the tournament bubble, and would likely have to win at least one game in the Big Ten Tournament to get in.
Indiana’s wins over Kansas and North Carolina really help the Hoosiers’ overall resume, but the committee could devalue those wins some because of the injuries the team has sustained since then.
Wednesday night’s home game against Penn State is looking like an absolute must-win for Indiana. If the Hoosiers are without James Blackmon Jr. for the second straight game, it will be a challenge to beat the Nittany Lions, who have always played Indiana tough at Assembly Hall over the years. Blackmon’s father told the Marion Chronicle-Tribune that he expects his son to miss only “a couple of games”, but the junior’s status for Wednesday remains up in the air.
Indiana’s offense was hard to watch without Blackmon on Sunday. The Hoosiers shot just 32 percent (17-of-53) from the field and missed nine of their 22 free-throw attempts. Northwestern packed the lane and essentially dared Josh Newkirk, Juwan Morgan, Devonte Green, Zach McRoberts and Freddie McSwain to shoot from the perimeter.
Crean’s offensive system is very dependent on floor spacing, something this team is really struggling to create. Newkirk, Green and Morgan combined to shoot 3-of-20 from the field and 1-of-10 from beyond the arc in Sunday’s loss, and many of the shots were wide open.
Blackmon helps Indiana space the floor because he demands attention no matter where he is on the court, and he’s also essential to the success of Robert Johnson (4-of-13 on Sunday), who relies on a playmaker to free him up for shot attempts.
Below is a very poor quality screenshot from Sunday’s game, but I think it helps illustrate Indiana’s court-spacing problem without Blackmon, Collin Hartman and OG Anunoby.
Thomas Bryant has the ball with his back to the basket on the left block. Northwestern’s Bryant McIntosh has his foot onthe right block, hedging much closer to the paint than his responsibility, Green in the right corner. Nobody is paying any attention to McSwain, who is standing beyond the 3-point line on the right wing (why would they?). Morgan is also well beyond the 3-point line, but his defender is standing in the middle of the lane.
So that leaves Bryant, the only guy that played well for Indiana on Sunday, essentially playing 1-on-4 if not 1-on-5 inside.
Long story short, Indiana needs Blackmon back as quickly as possible.
ESPN’s latest Bracketology — released Monday — has the Hoosiers as a No. 9 seed playing 8th-seeded USC with a potential matchup against Gonzaga in the round of 32.
Indiana fans seem to disagree with that assessment. A Twitter poll I conducted on Monday morning showed an overwhelming majority believe the Hoosiers will not make the Big Dance. As of 2:30 p.m. on Monday afternoon, 85 percent of 417 people polled said Indiana would not make the NCAA Tournament.