EDIT: Michigan just ran away from Indiana 69-45. Definitely not the best way to open these four games!
Tom Crean's Indiana Hoosiers (7-8, 1-2) will face the inconsistent Michigan Wolverines (8-7, 2-2) in Ann Arbor tonight, kicking off a crucial sequence of four mid-January games in the Big Ten.
There's one good thing you can say about this Indiana team—it sure has been interesting in Crean's second year. That Dec. 8 win over Pittsburgh is looking like it could be a solid resume builder (wishful thinking, I know), and even after losing leading scorer Maurice Creek for the season in a meaningless blowout against Bryant, the Hoosiers have continued to scratch and claw for wins.
They toppled Michigan in the teams' New Years Eve meeting, and dominated most of the Illinois game before fading down the stretch in a game that was decided at the free throw line.
Clearly, the loss of Creek and sophomore gunner Matt Roth haven't crippled Indiana. But scoring is always at a premium in the stingy Big Ten, and losing your two best three-point shooters forces others to step up in low-scoring battles where a few points can make the difference between a win and a loss.
It would be easy to look at the next four Hoosiers matchups and shrug. Starting tonight at Michigan, Indiana alternates road and away games, getting Minnesota (12-5, 3-2) at home, Penn State (8-8, 0-4) on the road, and then Iowa (6-11, 0-4) back home at Assembly Hall. It's not exactly the cream of the conference crop.
Regardless, this is, without a doubt, the crossroads for the youthful Hoosiers. Why? Because these are all winnable games. For a team desperate to show its loyal fans some improvement and hope, the best possible thing to do is win the games you're supposed to.
Indiana has already beaten Michigan once this year. Guard Jeremiah Rivers did solid defensive work on Manny Harris, and these two veterans will be seeing a lot of one another again tonight.
Beyond forward DeShawn Sims, the Wolverines are painfully shallow in the frontcourt, which should allow Indiana's big men to dictate the tone of the game inside. Freshman Christian Watford scored 19 on New Year's Eve, and needs to have another solid effort tonight.
Additionally, Rivers and backcourt mate Verdell Jones III totaled 17 rebounds in that first game, combining for the majority of the Hoosiers' boards. Crashing the boards for second-chance buckets and fouls will be crucial if IU wants to steal one on the road.
Michigan really doesn't want to give the rebuilding Hoosiers a season sweep, and should come out with an intense effort to defend their home court. But the Ann Arbor 'advantage' hasn't been quite as strong as others found around the Big Ten—in fact, Michigan just dropped one to Northwestern at home.
Indiana needs to build some momentum tonight, because next up is a talented Minnesota team that has been tested early in the conference season, falling to conference leaders Michigan State and Purdue but defeating an Evan Turner-led Ohio State squad in Minneapolis.
Will the Golden Gophers look past Indiana to their revenge date with MSU? If so, the scrappy Hoosiers could catch Minnesota off guard. They'll still have to pull off something crazy, though, because Ralph Sampson III , Damian Johnson , and the rest of the Gopher forwards present serious size problems, and IU has struggled to defend big men this year.
Jordan Hulls and Devan Dumes will need to shoot lights-out if Indiana wants to keep up with the high-scoring Gophers, who average over 77 points per game, second in the Big Ten.
By contrast, scoring shouldn't be a problem in the final pair of this four-game trial by Big Ten fire. Indiana, to date, is averaging a solid 72.3 ppg on the offensive end. Penn State, who will host the Hoosiers next Thursday, is completely reliant on guard Talor Battle for scoring.
They have yet to win one in the Big Ten (though they were close against Illinois last week, falling 53-52). This is a prime chance to steal a road win in State College against last year's NIT champs.
Which brings us to Iowa. Iowa is just awful. Last year the Hawkeyes gave Crean his first Big Ten win in Bloomington, easily the brightest spot in that dismal season. The 2009-10 Hawks may be even worse than last year's squad, and this is truly a must-win if the Indiana bench wants to keep their fans' confidence.
These four games will define this Indiana team. Even if they win only two, they will still have improved on last year's conference total, proving that Tom Crean is leading the way up the right path out of basketball Purgatory. If they can make a good showing in all four games, their confidence in each other should skyrocket and perhaps even fuel some upset victories down the stretch.
My fellow Indiana fans, a .500 record and an NIT berth is not even remotely out of reach. I'm not saying this is an NCAA tournament team (although with Creek, it might have been), but just making the postseason would represent a quantum leap forward. Heck, even being alive for a .500 finish come Valentine's Day would be huge!
Right now, in the doldrum days of mid-January, the youthful Hoosiers can take four critical steps towards a return to national relevance. It all starts tonight.