If the goal is to be peaking at the right time in March, then the Indiana Hoosiers appear to be right on schedule heading into the Big Ten Tournament.
As the Hoosiers prepare to face the No. 12-seeded Penn State Nittany Lions on Thursday, Tom Crean has to like the way his team is playing basketball. Since their loss in Ann Arbor on Feb. 1, Indiana has won seven of its last eight basketball games, winning their last four by an average margin of 16 points.
But the Hoosiers will need to perform on a stage that hasn't been very kind to them over the years. Indiana has never won the Big Ten Tournament, which began in 1998, and has only finished runner-up one time in 2001. The Hoosiers' overall record in the event is 8-14, which can only be topped (or bottomed) by Northwestern's mark of 6-14.
Indiana enters the event as a No. 5-seed, thanks to their tie-breaking win over Purdue on Sunday. With the exception of Iowa winning as a No. 6-seed in 2001, no team higher than a No. 4-seed has won the event. The No. 1 or No. 2 seed has won the tournament 11 of the 14 times its been played.
Here is a look at this year's tournament bracket, played at Conseco Fieldhouse (Banker's Life Fieldhouse) in Indianapolis:
The Hoosiers will open up against Penn State, a team they have already beaten twice this season. Penn State is 0-9 away from the Bryce Jordan Center since the start of conference play, and 1-11 overall for the season; their only win came at Boston College in the Big-Ten/ACC challenge.
Indiana finished the season with a 6-6 record away from Assembly Hall, winning their only game played on a neutral court against No. 23-ranked Notre Dame, which also came at Conseco Fieldhouse.
The scouting report for Penn State is easy: Stop Tim Frazier, and win the game. Indiana struggled to defend the all Big Ten point guard in their first meeting in Happy Valley, allowing Frazier to score 21 points and dish out seven assists.
In the second meeting between the two teams, Frazier wasn't as effective. Though he finished the game with 21 points, he failed to penetrate and get his teammates involved, ending the game with only one assist and three turnovers.
Victor Oladipo has been Tom Crean's go-to guy on Frazier for most of the year, but Will Sheehey was also very effective in the second half the last time the two teams met.
More recently, Crean has gone to Christian Watford defending the point guard position, using his length to prevent the dribble drive. Expect to see a healthy mix of the three on Frazier Thursday afternoon in order to keep a fresh body on him at all times.
This game isn't complicated: Show up, don't shoot themselves in the foot and Indiana will win.
Assuming the Hoosiers can knock off Penn State, Wisconsin would be next. This is a rematch that Tom Crean and his team should be eagerly anticipating. The two teams met only once this season, and the game was in Madison. Indiana outplayed the Badgers for most of the game, but didn't make enough plays in the last eight minutes to win.
On a neutral (semi-home) floor, I don't believe Indiana has much of an issue getting past them. The Hoosiers are more athletic, and Wisconsin won't have the benefit of the home-court whistles that keep them in every game in the Kohl Center.
If they can continue their momentum in get past the first two games, the Hoosiers would need to most likely get through a combination of Michigan State and Ohio State/Michigan.
The other factor in play for Indiana will be how their seeding for the NCAA tournament is affected. So long as they get past Penn State, they are assured of a No. 4-seed or higher. If they can get by Wisconsin, they are a fringe No. 3-seed, which they can lock up by making it to the finals on Sunday.
Indiana has proven throughout the season that they can play with anyone in the entire country. When you factor in how well they have been playing over the past two weeks, you can see why many national outlets are picking the Hoosiers as their dark horse to win this event.
I'm not ready to go that far, as I still believe Ohio State is the team to beat, and don't think Indiana can stack up with them on a neutral floor. But had you listened to me, we'd be looking forward to the NIT next week.
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