When? Sunday, 7:30 PM, BTN
Pomeroy? INDIANA by 4, 62% chance of Indiana victory
All year, seemingly, we talked about the odd-yet-favorable way Indiana's conference schedule broke down; with a projected brutal start that included two road trips to Nebraska and Michigan State, followed up with a home date to Ohio State. Then, smack in the middle, a stretch of six games that included four on the road (Illinois, Ohio State, Purdue, and Wisconsin) and a home date with Maryland. All year we talked about treading water enough to give the Hoosiers a chance to close the season strong.
And now it's time.
I shouldn't have to remind anyone that numbers are not results, Indiana gets no credit for being favored in their six remaining games but it is meant to illustrate that Indiana has been given an end-of-season stretch that a competitive league like the Big Ten RARELY offers. Four of the six are at home, and the two road trips are to the 13th and 14th place teams in the conference. Indiana has long proven that any game in Assembly Hall is winnable, and while the road is dark and full of terrors, particularly for the Hoosiers, Evanston and Piscataway are a far cry from the environments they've experienced in Champaign and West Lafayette.
Six winnable games. Six enormous opportunities.
Make no mistake, Indiana is still firmly in the field of 68. Not in the seed line any Indiana fan hopes for, but it's worth remembering that a one-seed has all the guarantees of a 16-seed when the tournament starts. Bracketologists put Indiana anywhere from a 7 to a 10-seed at the moment, and the Hoosiers still have some great opportunities to pad their résumé, with seven Big Ten wins already banked and no bad losses to atone for. (For the record, I consider Eastern Washington a bad loss, but apparently no bracketologist does, as it never gets listed as one.) Indiana has yet to lose a conference game they were projected / favored to win, and a continuation of that trend over their final six will net them a record of 23-8 (13-5) heading into the Big Ten Tournament. Cumulative probabilities have Indiana at 21-10 (11-7), which is still more than enough to get them into the Big Dance, but might not be good enough for a top-four finish in the conference and the coveted "double-bye" in the conference tourney.
But it all starts with the Gophers.
What's a Minnesota?
Y'all may have forgotten about our conference brothers up north, given that the football teams didn't meet this year and our only date with the Gophers in bouncyhoops isn't happening until after Valentine's Day. Richard Pitino guided his team to an 11-2 mark in a manageable non-conference slate that included an impressive neutral court win over Georgia, but not much else. Unfortunately, the Big Ten was not nearly as kind, as Minnesota was 1-6 after their first seven games, including an 0-5 start, but have seemed to right the ship as of late, improving to 5-7 and winning four of their last five. Their most impressive win being their latest one, as they escaped from Iowa City with their first conference road victory of the season.
As far as the team, Gophers play fast (38th in tempo) which is great for Indiana, but they pair that with being much bigger (13th in effective height), which will cause familiar matchup issues. Pitino the Younger's Gophers play a defense at least somewhat reminiscent of what Rick Pitino uses in Louisville, utilizing lots of ball pressure to force mistakes and it's working, they're second in the nation in defensive steal percentage, fourth in defensive TO%. Indiana will need to be extra careful with the ball and guys who are being too careless will likely find themselves on the bench regardless of their contributions elsewhere. Just getting the ball inbounded and across the timeline after made shots will require the Hoosiers full and undivided attention for 40 minutes, because our amazingly efficient offense won't beat anyone if the ball gets turned over 60 feet from the basket.
From a personnel standpoint, the dynamic backcourt of Andre Hollins and Deandre Mathieu are playing out their senior seasons, both sporting offensive ratings over 100 with Hollins hitting 42.8% of his three point shots and Mathieu dishing out assists at a 28.9% clip. Both will likely see a heavy dose of Yogi Ferrell and Robert Johnson on Sunday night, a matchup that should be electric to watch.
Down low, Maurice Walker shoulders the load for the Gophers, with an eFG% of 58.2 while also hitting 73.6% of his free throws. Joey King is 6-9, but is perimeter oriented stretch-4 with 55.4% of his attempts coming from behind the arc, a shot he is hitting 36.1% of the time. The fifth spot in the starting lineup has jockeyed between 6-5 Carlos Morris and 6-9 Charles Buggs, with Buggs being better offensively (111.3 ORtg v. 98.1) and also having the added benefit of being, well, big.
HERE WOULD YOU LIKE SOME FACTORS?
Minnesota's defense, ranked 62nd overall in efficiency, is seemingly fueled almost exclusively by their sterling turnover rate, as their shot defending, rebounding, and free throw rate all very from below-average to bad. The key to this game becomes very, very evident: VALUE. THE. BALL. The numbers reveal very few other things Minnesota can lean on if they can't turn you over. It's a day where the safe play is going to be the best play, every time and getting the ball across the timeline will, at times, take a focused team effort. Indiana has done a decent job with turnovers this year, but they'll need to be at their best on Sunday night.
While Indiana tends to make any opponent look extraordinarily efficient on offense, Minnesota doesn't excel at much outside of shooting the ball, and they're 48th in the country from long-range to boot. The Gophers are poor offensive rebounders and just as bad as Indiana at getting to the free throw line, so it's on Indiana to get out on shooters and challenge looks, something that the team has been hilariously inconsistent at over the course of the season. The team has a handful of decent defenders (Yogi, RoJo, Hartman, etc.) but the team is far too prone to communication lapses that lead to open looks on top of their tendency to get overwhelmed in the paint due to their lack of size.
Three Things to Watch For:
- How does Yogi respond? We all saw Yogi get his heart wrenched out as his final two shots to beat / tie Maryland rimmed out on him. I'm interested to see how the junior point guard responds after a few days to stew over it. I have a feeling we're going to see the best version of the kid (as we usually do) but it'll be interesting to monitor, at the very least.
- I'm gonna say something insane that you'll all laugh at me for probably. With James Blackmon Jr. turning in his worst game as a Hoosier on Wednesday night and Hanner Mosquera-Perea looking healthier in limited minutes, is it absolutely crazy to suggest that Crean roll out a starting lineup of Yogi, RoJo, Troy, Hartman and Perea? This isn't a "GAH JBJ IS TERRIBLE" pitchforks, etc. thing, I think it would be a marriage of good matchups and giving James a chance to come off the bench as a pure scorer to get his groove back. This more traditional look would matchup size-wise with Minnesota and free up Hartman to defend Joey King on the perimeter, something he's likely to be more successful at than down low. That said, this is probably a horrible idea, offensively, because JBJ has a sterling turnover rate and everyone else in that lineup not named Yogi does not, also Blackmon is a great basketball player who just had a bad shooting night. Forget I said anything. I am dumb.
- Does Crean Fuch around in this game or not? To answer your first thought: no those puns aren't getting old. Jordan Fuchs made headlines on Wednesday with news that the Hoosiers' tight end had joined the basketball team and was available off the bench against Maryland. At 6-6, and more importantly, 230 pounds, Fuchs brings some size to a roster that desperately needs it. After a few more days of practice and a large, physical opponent on tap, does Crean turn to this new wildcard for some quality minutes in the post? I'll probably keep doubting it until it actually happens, but it's not like Crean added him for no reason. Or maybe he did. I don't know, I'm not a mind-reader. Get out of my face.