When the 2018-19 edition of IU basketball picked up win No. 12 at home against Illinois last Jan. 3, the NCAA Tournament looked like a near certainty.
Ranked No. 21 with a 12-2 record, the Hoosiers were rolling up wins despite a series of nagging injuries.
Of course you know the story. Those injuries got worse before they got better, and win No. 13 would not come until Feb. 2.
Another three and a half weeks passed before the Hoosiers were able to secure another win, this time on Feb. 26 after two overtimes in Bloomington against Wisconsin.
During an eight week span from Jan. 2 to Feb. 26, Indiana had exactly one win between the bookend Illinois and Wisconsin home victories.
That lonely Groundhog Day win came at perhaps the most unlikely of all places — The Breslin Center in East Lansing, Mich. IU stunned the Spartans and their ESPN Gameday home crowd in overtime.
It was surely the start of something folks thought at the time, but instead the Big Ten schedule just kept dealing frustration.
With win No. 14 coming for this year’s squad more than five weeks sooner on the calendar than it did last year, it would appear that the Hoosiers have moved beyond the frustration of 2019.
But in many respects IU (14-4, 4-3) is right back where they were after that win over Illinois last year.
The 2019 eight weeks from hell featured a 12 of 13 game losing streak the likes of which Indiana fans could never have imagined — and never want to see again.
The next seven weeks of 2020 feature 13 games that should be every bit as difficult as last year’s run of futility.
And it starts with the one team that IU was able to beat in that disastrous 13 game stretch last season. In fact, the Hoosiers went on to sweep Michigan State in 2019 as they fought their way back from the brink of disaster to the NCAA Tournament bubble.
Here are Indiana’s final 13 games of the 2019-20 season, with each team’s KenPom ranking to the left of their name and that service’s prediction for the game to the right.
With each remaining opponent in the KenPom top 36, will the Hoosiers struggle against this slate of games as much as they did last season?
There are several reasons to believe that they won’t.
First, IU is healthy. For the better part of a month the Hoosiers have had their full complement of 11 scholarship players available. That has given head coach Archie Miller the flexibility to go with matchups, find a hot hand, and use the bench as punishment. He’s done all of that in recent weeks.
Second, while the offense is by no means a juggernaut, it does have something of an identity that IU can lean on — if only a little bit. The Hoosiers get to the foul line as well as anyone, and the same holds true when it comes to their ability to generate second chances via offensive rebounds. Those are attributes that might help IU find a win or two where they couldn’t last year.
Three-point shooting has been a major thorn in the side of the Hoosier attack once again, but Saturday night at Nebraska showed some promise, especially if they can start to get production from the likes of struggling freshmen Armaan Franklin and Jerome Hunter.
Finally, Indiana’s defense is quietly emerging. The Hoosiers have held their last four opponents to less than a point per possession, as the return of a healthy Rob Phinisee has improved the team’s on-the-ball defense. IU is currently ranked No. 34 in KenPom adjusted defensive efficiency. Even when the offense struggles, Indiana should be able to stay in most games against a lineup of opponents that doesn’t feature a lot of elite scoring teams.
It’s going to be a wild last seven weeks of the regular season, and Indiana won’t emerge unscathed.
“I think every team is going to experience their ups and downs,” Miller said after the win over Nebraska. “We are no different.”
But with some strengths to build on and 7 of 13 at home down the stretch, IU appears to be in a much better position than they were at this time last year.
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