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A suddenly critical four-game stretch for Indiana basketball

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After spending January in the wilderness, the Hoosiers have an opportunity to surge.

NCAA Basketball: Indiana at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

“IU’s season died tonight.”

I received that text from my dad around 2 AM local time in London after Indiana finished getting their ears boxed in by Rutgers. I could not disagree.

The only reasonable counterargument would be to say that IU’s season was dead prior to arrival in Piscataway, and that the Scarlet Knights were merely dancing on a grave.

But then— an unfathomable result in East Lansing and, all of the sudden, the wilderness clears out a little bit. At 13-9 (4-7), the Hoosiers sit ever so tenuously on the bubble, but a well-timed surge could define this team’s mentality and give them a chance to show off how much resilience can pay off in March.

KenPom projects the next four games (vs. Iowa, vs. Ohio State, at Minnesota, and hosting Purdue) with razor-thin, one-possession margins. Incidentally, all of these teams (save Minnesota) are top-35 in KenPom and the NET rankings and those same three are the games Indiana gets in the friendly confines of Assembly Hall.

The Hoosiers started the season being absolute money in tight games, going 4-1 in one-possession games during the first half of the season. They didn’t necessarily stop winning close games, they just stopped playing them altogether. The seven-game losing streak produced exactly one close contest, a 75-72 loss at Maryland (a game that the Hoosiers had lead by 14 in the first half.)

It’s not particularly encouraging to recall that Indiana didn’t merely lose seven straight games, but spent most of them playing out the last few minutes with no hope of pulling out a victory. But the game that ended the slide saw the Hoosiers stick with Michigan State for a full 40 minutes and be rewarded with the ball and an opportunity to win the game at the buzzer. While they ultimately needed overtime to prevail over the Spartans, it’s worth noting that as soon as the Hoosiers found themselves in a close game in crunch time again, their knack for finding a victory in that situation resurfaced.

I’m not naive enough to believe that finding ways to win one-possession games is an actual skill. If you play enough 50/50 games, in any sport, the results will eventually regress back to, well, 50/50. But I’ve also watched enough sports to know that teams go on these kind of good-luck runs all the time, and if that’s what the 2019 Hoosiers want to do—that’s fine with me.

Thanks to their big win, it all seems just a little bit more possible now. Win these next two at home and get a win at The Barn (far easier said than done) and you’re 16-9 (7-7) with a looming rematch against a Purdue team that was left for dead earlier in the season and is now gunning for a conference championship. Mix in a raucous home crowd with the confidence of a surging team and things could get fun in a hurry.

A five-game winning streak that includes Archie’s first win over Purdue and the program’s first win over their northern rivals since what feels like an eternity? That would be what we in the business call The Good Stuff, a stretch of play that can fuel teams deep into March. The kind of streak that allows you to dismiss those January blues as a mere blip on the radar, a sort of team-wide flu season.

But even a 3-1 stretch, regardless of the win distribution, would put Indiana firmly back in field and, as long as they avoid disaster on the run-in, would almost certainly hear their name on Selection Sunday.

A 2-2 stretch would probably not move the needle all that much unless one of those wins is over Purdue, but Indiana would still be left with plenty of work to do and likely needing another big road win to feel good about their chances.

One win or less? In that case one of us probably writes about Archie’s future at Indiana in very dreary tones and the content slows to a trickle. Same as it ever was. The margins coaches work with, especially early on in big jobs, are razor thin. No one ever said coaching at Indiana was easy, they also never said it was fun.

It all starts at 9 PM Thursday night in Assembly Hall against an Iowa squad that’s rated #23 on KenPom. No one asked, but the last time Indiana hosted a KenPom-rated 23rd Iowa in Assembly Hall for a 9 PM Thursday tip?

They seized the moment spectacularly.