Indiana Basketball: Hoosiers' Blueprint to Wrapping Up the Big Ten
Despite the loss to the Minnesota Golden Gophers, the Indiana Hoosiers are still the top team in the Big Ten. With a conference record of 12-3, the Hoosiers are still capable of finishing the Big Ten season in first place.
The Big Ten conference is easily the most powerful conference in college basketball this season. As Nate Dunlevy explained to me, "any win on the road in the Big Ten is big, regardless of who you are playing."
There is a lot of truth in that quote. Even some of the weaker teams in this conference are very respectable. There have been a lot of upsets in conference play, and every team is a threat to pull of another one.
The Hoosiers are still in control of their own destiny in the Big Ten regular season. If they win out, they will finish on top.
In order for that to happen, here are a few things that the Hoosiers will need to do.
Get Christian Watford Going Early
At the beginning of the season, many Hoosiers fans questioned Christian Watford's ability to score.
At this point in the season, it's hard to make that same argument.
Watford has been one of the bigger scorers for the Hoosiers, averaging 13.0 points per game. He has also been deadly with the three-point shot, making 49 percent of his shots behind the arc.
The big key for Watford to play well is to have him make some shots early. After that, he gets much more comfortable, taking much better shots. When he isn't involved early, he begins forcing things and starts making questionable decisions.
A good example of getting Watford hot early was against the Purdue Boilermakers on February 16th. Watford was able to score eight points in the first four minutes, including two big three-pointers. He finished the game with 14 points, and the Hoosiers routed Purdue, winning 83-55.
Watford has been a big part of the Hoosiers' success this year. Although he hasn't gotten as much attention as Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo, he has been a big contributor for the team.
Rebound, Rebound, Rebound
The Golden Gophers figured out how to beat the Hoosiers. It isn't by playing as fast as them, but by crashing the boards on both sides of the ball.
Minnesota had 17 offensive rebounds and 38 total rebounds. The Hoosiers only had 25 total rebounds, with just eight on offense.
In two of the Hoosiers' four losses, they lost the advantage in rebounds. Against Minnesota and the Butler Bulldogs, Indiana was out-rebounded by a combined total of 75-56.
The Hoosiers grab 8.2 rebounds per game more on average than their opponents. This is a big advantage for the Hoosiers, and losing it in a game typically spells trouble.
This will be one of the things that Tom Crean will focus on after the rough loss to Minnesota. Keeping an advantage on the boards is critical for this team's success and needs to continue to happen as the season winds down.
Continued Improvement from Bench
One of the bigger concerns during the beginning of the season was the disappointing play of the bench. It still isn't the best group in the nation, but they have continued to improve and are becoming a very respectable squad.
Will Sheehey has been the big player off of the bench. He has been averaging nearly 10 points per game for the season, leading all non-starters in the Big Ten. His intensity and leadership have been invaluable to the team.
Jeremy Hollowell started the season struggling a bit, but he is beginning to show signs of real potential. His defense has been spectacular and was showcased against the Michigan Wolverines, getting three crucial blocks in the game.
The return of Derek Elston has also been big, as his role has been getting bigger and bigger each game. He's done a great job being a leader for the younger players, as well as giving Watford and Zeller time to rest on the bench.
The bench is starting to look very solid thanks to some key players. If this improvement continues, this team will be very balanced and prepared to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.
Consistency from Cody Zeller
The entire nation understands that Cody Zeller is still one of the top players in the country.
However, he has had some bad games this season that have occurred in big games.
It's not fair to criticize too much of Zeller's game, as he has been the anchor for the Hoosiers for the past two seasons. Great players have bad games from time to time, but it matters when they happen.
The Hoosiers could have really used a better game from Zeller against Minnesota, but he struggled. He had trouble against the stronger Trevor Mbakwe, shooting only 2-for-9 from the field. His four turnovers were also a big problem, losing the handle at some very bad times.
Zeller can move on from this game and continue to play like an All-American, but the Hoosiers will need him to do that consistently. With games against Michigan and Ohio State approaching, Zeller can't have another bad game. Another bad game from him can easily lead to a loss against these great teams.
Move on from Loss
The loss to Minnesota will hurt. The Hoosiers will likely lose their No. 1 ranking, and it will make it much harder to secure a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Regardless, the Hoosiers can't let this loss shake them. They are still one of the best teams in the country, as well as the top team in the Big Ten conference.
The good sign for the Hoosiers is that they have done a pretty good job coming back from losses already this year. Their win streaks after a loss have been six, five and four games, respectively.
With only three more games to play before the Big Ten tournament, the Hoosiers will need to bounce back and play their best basketball. If they can win out, they will be the top seed for the Big Ten tournament in Chicago, giving them a pretty good chance at taking the conference title back to Bloomington.
Tom Crean knows how to motivate this team, and he will need to do just that after a tough loss. The team trusts Crean and will likely go back to their winning ways for the end of the season.