It’s tough to come out of a 23-point blowout thinking the victor left something out on the court. However, that is exactly the feeling one got after watching No. 7 Indiana handle Penn State 72-49 at home Wednesday night.
Sure, the Hoosiers were hot from beyond the arc, making 11-of-20 from three. Indiana also outscored an opponent in the second half for the first time in four games, dating back to the first meeting with the Nittany Lions on Jan. 7.
But Indiana was sloppy down the stretch, ending the game with 19 turnovers. Cody Zeller finished 0-of-4 from the field, the first time in his collegiate career he has been held without a field goal, and the Hoosiers made just 56.8 percent (21-of-37) of their free throws.
Indiana can get away with that against Penn State, which is struggling mightily without senior point guard Tim Frazier, but it won’t be able to get away with it in any one of a five-game stretch beginning on Sunday against No. 13 Michigan State.
The Hoosiers’ next five games feature matchups with the Spartans, No. 2 Michigan and No. 14 Ohio State as well as road trips to Purdue and Illinois.
Sunday is the beginning of a crucial stretch as Indiana postures for NCAA Tournament seeding. Obviously, the Hoosiers’ ideal scenario come tournament time would be a No. 1 seed in the Midwest Regional, playing possible Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games in Indianapolis.
That Midwest Regional No. 1 seed figures to be saved for the winner of the Big Ten, without a doubt the strongest conference in the country this season.
The Hoosiers already let one home game slip away against Wisconsin and can ill-afford to drop home games to the Wolverines and Spartans, the teams with which Indiana is tied with in the loss column of the conference standings.
The good news is that some of Indiana’s struggles Wednesday were atypical. Zeller, for instance, has been fantastic since the start of Big Ten play. He is averaging 16.3 points and 8.7 rebounds while shooting 57.8 percent from the field. Zeller has five double-doubles this year, and three have come in league play.
Indiana will need Zeller to be at his best Sunday against Michigan State’s imposing front court of Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne. The Spartans will be physical with Zeller, but he needs to be the best big man on the court to optimize Indiana’s chances at winning.
Hitting 56.8 percent from the charity stripe also was an anomaly. The Hoosiers entered the game shooting 74.3 percent from the free-throw line.
The sloppy play down the stretch, on the other hand, has been a troubling trend. Minnesota outscored Indiana 52-36 in the second half of its game in Bloomington, cutting a 23-point halftime lead to three in the final minute. Wisconsin took control of its 64-59 win at Indiana in the second half.
In this weekend’s 67-59 win at Northwestern, the Hoosiers let the Wildcats get within five points at the 6:34 mark after leading by 16 with 11:11 to play.
Even Wednesday, Indiana led Penn State by 24 with 10:09 to play. Despite leaving rotation players in the game, the Hoosiers couldn’t finish strong, giving coach Tom Crean plenty of mistakes to point out in the film room.
Still, Indiana is 17-2 overall and 5-1 in the Big Ten. The Hoosiers will have to clean some things up if they are going to accomplish their goals, which are still right there for the taking starting on Sunday.
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