IU put together a comfortable but not overwhelming performance in its final non-conference game of the regular season. For those who were hoping for a cathartic beatdown, it didn't quite happen, but it also was a game that IU had in hand for most of the day. IU took its first double digit lead of the game with 12 minutes to go, and the Eagles never got closer than 10 points for the rest of the day. Because of work obligations and my cheapness, I haven't seen the game, other than a few highlights. My random thoughts:
- This may have been IU's best rebounding performance of the season: IU corralled 53 percent of its own missed shots and allowed NCCU only 13 percent of its OR opportunities (3 total).
- This was a big step back on turnovers: 25.2 percent, our third worst of the season.
- Christian Watford continues to struggle from the field. He has now gone 0-fer in three of the last five games. It's a shame, because he really has picked up other aspects of his game. Hulls isn't scoring much, either.
- The underclassmen are increasingly carrying the load for this squad: Cody Zeller, Victor Oladipo, and Will Sheehey stood out on the boards and as scorers.
As I mentioned in the headline, this is IU's first undefeated non-conference season in 22 years. There have been tougher non-conference schedules in the intervening years, but IU's 13-0 non-con mark includes a win over the #1 team (Kentucky, still with only one loss), two true road wins (NC State and Evansville) and a neutral court win over a team that may well be the best in the Big East (Notre Dame). What became of the 1989-90 Hoosiers? Well, that Calbert Cheaney-led squad finished 8-10 in the Big Ten and lost to Cal in the 8-9 game of the NCAA Tournament. That sort of finish, while mathematically possible, would be disappointing, but IU then spent the next three seasons as a fixture in the top 5, so that would be okay. In all seriousness, it's a significant accomplishment.
The next game is at Minnesota. This is a huge game. It certainly isn't a must-win. I continue to believe that IU could lose all of its remaining regular season games so long as the Hoosiers manage to knock off their first round Big Ten Tournament opponent. If that happens, IU would be 22-11 and would hold wins over Kentucky, OSU, and Michigan, a road win against NCAA-bound Purdue, and a road win against bubble team NC State. IU's overall record would be good, and there would be only two sub-100 losses, at Iowa and at Nebraska. I haven't engaged in any bracketology of my own, but I refuse to believe that IU would even fall to the first four with that resume, regardless of a tough finish.
As an aside, I suppose this is as good a time as any for some Big Ten Tournament discussion. Thanks to the loss to Iowa, IU almost certainly is locked into the 5 or 6 seed regardless of whether the Hoosiers win out or lose out. Mathematically, IU cannot catch MSU, and could tie Michigan if the Wolverines lose out, but would lose the tiebreaker because Michigan beat Wisconsin. Wisconsin would have to lose three of its last four to fall behind IU, which would including losing a home game to Minnesota or Illinois. Interestingly, of the four-loss teams, Ohio State probably has the best chance of falling behind IU. If IU won out and the Buckeyes lost out (which is unlikely but not impossible, with Wisconsin, @ Northwestern, and @ MSU remaining), then IU would have the tiebreaker by virtue of its 1-1 record against MSU. But again, this is pretty fanciful. IU almost certainly will not move higher than #5. If IU loses out, Purdue almost certainly will move into the #5 slot, and it is possible that IU would be passed by Iowa or Northwestern, or more remotely, Minnesota or Illinois (ha!). Still, absent something truly unusual, IU probably will be playing on Thursday against either Nebraska or Penn State.
But back to the Minnesota game. As I said, I don't think it's a must-win, but I do think it is going to tell us something about the character of this team. If IU fights to the finish, and Minnesota wins by five because they hit some big shots, then so be it. But if we see the same sluggish start that killed IU in the games at Michigan and Iowa, then I hope Tom Crean goes Knight on them and puts Kory Barnett and Taylor Wayer in the game. Again, I can live with a loss, but I want to see a team that acts as if it's the NCAA title game. Too much to ask? I don't know. And perhaps I am putting too much emphasis on one game. IU could lay an egg in Minneapolis and then beat MSU and Purdue and all would be well with the world. But I feel like I did a few weeks ago, when IU was facing a road swing to Michigan and Purdue before home games against Illinois and Northwestern. A loss wouldn't be fatal, but a road win would be really nice for some momentum.