Indiana hit the road for the second time in this young Big Ten season, and the Hoosiers, and Jordan Hulls in particular, shook off their shooting woes and produced a comfortable 74-51 win to move IU to 2-0 in the Big Ten and 14-1 overall. Credit Jeff Rabjohns with the observation that this is IU's first Big Ten road win by more than 20 points since a 20-point win at Michigan in 2002. Obviously, the last decade hasn't been particularly good for IU basketball, but IU has fielded some solid teams since 2002, and plenty of Big Ten teams from Michigan, Iowa, Northwestern, Penn State, and Minnesota have been plenty bad since then. So, while the Iowa-Penn State gauntlet doesn't compare to what IU will face in upcoming Illinois-Ohio State and Michigan State-Minnesota road swings, such a comfortable win remains a good sign.
Obviously, a key to last night's game is that the Hoosiers were very hot for the first 15 minutes or so. IU's lead moved into the double digits for good at the 12:44 mark and fluctuated between 15 and 19 points for the final 10 minutes of the first half. Still, while it was nice to see Jordan Hulls regain his three point stroke and to see Good Watford in evidence, what is most heartening about IU's start in conference play has been the defensive performance. As we discussed last year and during the offense, the reason last year's team was merely a nice Sweet 16 type team and not a national championship contender was the defense. This season, the numbers during pre-conference play suggested improvement, but I had lingering doubts given the quality of competition. While I'm going to stop short of declaring IU's defense truly elite, I do think it's fair to believe that it is meaningfully better than last year's. The Hoosiers held Penn State to .75 points per possession, IU's best defensive performance against a Big Ten opponent in the Crean era, and held Iowa to .86 points per possession. Neither team has a great offense, but this is better than would have been expected from last year's squad. The main negatives for last night's game were on offense: turnovers (25.1 percent, second worst performance of the year, but not as bad as Penn State) and offensive rebounding (only 28 percent).
Still, the Hoosiers are where they need to be right now, and are only one road win short of matching their Big Ten total from last season. The biggest test in Big Ten play so far comes Saturday, when the Minnesota Golden Gophers, ranked in the top 10 and with only a loss to Duke, come to Assembly Hall. Minnesota is the only team to have defeated IU at Assembly Hall either this season or last, and that loss and the loss to Nebraska cost IU a share of the Big Ten title last year. This year's Gophers are much better than last year's team, thanks to the return of Trevor Mbakwe for his sixth season. Stay tuned.