It feels weird and hyperbolic to stress the importance of a four-game stretch in late December/early January, but that’s what we’re going to do. Because for Indiana, the teeth of the schedule are looming and the next couple weeks are crucial for establishing some sort of traction after a winless start to Big Ten play.
Based on Monday’s Associated Press Top 25, IU will see 12 consecutive ranked opponents from Jan. 17 to Feb. 27. Sure, that number can and probably will change as the season unfolds, but it’s indicative of the urgency facing an IU team that just ... doesn’t seem to have it together right now.
The upcoming four-game stretch starts Wednesday night in Bloomington against Penn State and continues with games against Maryland, at Wisconsin and at Nebraska. From there, IU gets Purdue at home on Jan. 14 before the aforementioned teeth start closing in. Going 3-1 against the likes of the Nittany Lions, Terrapins, Badgers and Cornhuskers certainly feels doable. And yet.
Penn State is also winless in the conference, but it did claim one of the Big Ten’s most notable victories in the annual ACC/Big Ten Challenge when it knocked off then-No. 15 Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. The Lions have also dealt with a couple of close losses, falling by six points in overtime to Seton Hall, then following up the win over the Hokies with a four-point loss at Michigan.
There’s no Lamar Stevens this year. No Mike Watkins either. Hell, even Pat Chambers is gone. It’s Jim Ferry’s team now — err... for now. Ferry is the interim coach in State College this season. Although this Penn State doesn’t have any players the caliber of Stevens in the lineup, it does have a few intriguing options on the perimeter. Wing Izaiah Brockington leads the Lions at 15.2 points per game, and he enters Bloomington on the heels of a 21-point effort in Penn State’s last game against Illinois. Over his last three games, Brockington is shooting 58.1% from the field. Guard Myreon Jones also posted 21 points against the Illini, marking his fourth straight contest with at least 10 points. Jones’ backcourt mate Jamari Wheeler doesn’t bring much offensive punch to the lineup, but he’s been one of the league’s better defensive guards over the past couple of years.
In the frontcourt, Seth Lundy had a strong start to the season, averaging 22.3 points over Penn State’s first three games. But he’s done virtually nothing since the loss to Seton Hall on Dec. 6, posting a total of 11 points in that recent three-game span. Underneath the basket, forward John Harrar had a tough go of it against Illinois last week, picking up four fouls and playing only nine minutes. It could be a similar story for Harrar against Trayce Jackson-Davis. Off the bench, Binghamton transfer Sam Sessoms (11.8 ppg) has scored in double figures in all six games this season and Myles Dread is shooting 41% from 3-point range.
Keep an eye on the perimeter, where Penn State has shown an eagerness to shoot the ball. The Lions are averaging 27 attempts and 9.8 makes from 3-point range this season.
Things to watch
Seriously, a little help here?
Armaan Franklin has been great these past few weeks. We know that. But you have to wonder: How much of this is sustainable? He’s averaging 19.5 points and shooting 65.4% from beyond the arc over the past four games, figures that he’s not likely to maintain over the course of the season. At some point, he’s going to cool off or have a quiet game. It happens. And when it does, who — beyond Trayce Jackson-Davis — will be able to help get IU going?
More work for Lander & Hunter?
On his weekly radio show Monday night, Archie Miller hinted that Khristian Lander could see more court time over the next few games. That, of course, wouldn’t take much with Lander averaging 3.6 minutes over the past three contests. Although there are understandable concerns about his defensive ability right now, he might add more (and much-needed) play creation and upside on the other end. At this point, it’s probably worth a try. Jerome Hunter, meanwhile, has gotten opportunities to play, but he hasn’t done much with them. Miller said Hunter had a strong practice on Monday, which he hopes will serve as a springboard for a more consistent showing on Wednesday. We’ll see.
TJD should feast
Bigs have basically been able to get what they want, when they want it against Penn State this year, particularly over the first few games of Big Ten play. Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson went 9-for-13 on 2-pointers and scored 20 points in the Wolverines’ 62-58 win on Dec. 13. Then, Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn and Giorgi Bezhanishvili combined to go 15-for-18 from the field for 31 points in last week’s 98-81 victory over Penn State. Interior defense has been a problem for the Lions, an issue that could continue against the likes of Trayce Jackson-Davis and Race Thompson on Wednesday.
Game Info / How to Watch
Who? Penn State (3-3, 0-2) at Indiana (5-4, 0-2)
Where? Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, Bloomington, Ind.
When? Wednesday, 8:30 p.m. ET
Channel? BTN | Kevin Kugler (p-b-p), Robbie Hummel (analyst)
Radio? IU Radio Network; Sirius 106, XM 196, Internet 958: Don Fischer, Errek Suhr & Joe Smith
Vegas? Indiana -5 1⁄2