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Indiana men’s basketball has a nonconference issue

Indiana hasn’t been up to the challenge in November or December.

NCAA Basketball: Arizona at Indiana Lucas Peltier-USA TODAY Sports

Before you go into this piece with any preconceived notions, I’d like to make something clear:

This is not sounding an alarm. Not a declaration of “it’s over” or an all-out rebuke of Indiana’s efforts and actions. It’s just an observation worth noting, take it as that.

When Indiana hired Mike Woodson in 2021 it did so in an effort to strengthen its brand as a program at the national level. To that end, Woodson has filled the Hoosiers’ schedules with powerhouses like Kansas, Arizona, Kentucky and UConn. North Carolina came naturally through the finale of the Big Ten-ACC challenge but was a desired matchup for both sides for obvious reasons.

If Indiana wants to be viewed as a major player it needs to compete with current major players. For the most part, this hasn’t happened yet.

Indiana’s neutral site one-offs, against Arizona, Kansas and Auburn, have both ended in lopsided losses. An away trip to Kansas ended the same way. North Carolina was something of a statement win until the Tar Heels fell apart.

There are a few other reasons to schedule these games on top of making a statement. For events like the Empire Classic and Holiday Hoopsgiving, they’re getting one of the better travelling/viewing fanbases in the country. For Indiana, it’s a chance to appeal to recruits in the area and members of the roster.

Mackenzie Mgbako got to play two games at Madison Square Garden after growing up in New Jersey where Indiana wasn’t on his radar, he said at the program’s media day. The same can be said for Kaleb Banks in Georgia.

If you’re from further away and interested in Indiana, the program will look into games close to home for your family and friends. But, as mentioned before, fans often take trips to these games.

A weekend in Vegas needs no explanation. Going to see historic arenas like Allen Fieldhouse and Madison Square Garden is a bucket list experience. Alumni across the South can get to Atlanta.

That’s all anyone who’s travelled has gotten though. Not a single marquee win in these huge games (No, Louisville in Madison Square Garden does not count).

One thing worth noting: playing these games and losing, even substantially, is better for Indiana than scheduling a bunch of no-names. Nobody outside the fanbase is gonna watch the Hoosiers take on some small school over Auburn or Kansas.

Indiana got blasted twice last year before January and still ended up with a 4-seed in March. Because the teams that beat it were Very Good.

It’s worth mentioning that I’m of the belief that next year carries more potential for the program than this one, barring a rapid increase in development and consistent play from the current backcourt.

And next year will be the biggest trip of all: the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas. Other members of the field include Arizona, Creighton and Gonzaga. Indiana has gotta win some substantial nonconference matchups in year four.

If Indiana can get better quickly and climb to the top of an extremely weak Big Ten it could do special things come tournament time. That starts with building a resume before the new year.