It hasn’t been a smooth ride for Indiana women’s basketball through the non-conference schedule.
IU is ranked No. 16 in the AP Poll and owns a 10-1 overall record, with a 1-0 mark in the Big Ten as the team heads into the bulk of conference play. The Hoosiers host Illinois (6-5, 0-1) Sunday at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall at 12:30 p.m. ET on BTN. But the journey to this point has been a little bumpy.
Last season, Indiana didn’t suffer its first loss of the season until December 29, the first game of the main Big Ten slate at Michigan State. The Hoosiers got it out of the way early this year, in ugly fashion. In their second game, a difficult road test against a ranked Stanford team, they lost in blowout fashion, 96-64. It was IU’s most lopsided loss in its last seven seasons, and it happened because of multiple reasons. Stanford is really good, and was underrated heading into that matchup. But also, IU came out very flat and dug itself a huge early hole.
Indiana responded to that drubbing the right way, with big home wins over mid-majors. The team got two more chances at quality non-conference wins after that during Thanksgiving week in the Elevance Health Women’s Fort Myers Tip-Off, against then-No. 19 Tennessee and an unranked but talented Princeton squad. And IU handled those challenges well, beating the Volunteers 71-57, and holding off the Tigers for a 72-63 win.
The Hoosiers seemed to put the issues from the Stanford game behind them with those games. But it all resurfaced the next week, when IU played at Maine in a homecoming for All-American forward Mackenzie Holmes. Indiana trailed the Black Bears by eight points at halftime, and needed a huge second half from Sydney Parrish to avoid a disastrous loss.
IU has steadily improved since then. The last non-conference game, an 84-35 win over Bowling Green, was perhaps Indiana’s best all-around performance of the season. The Hoosiers drained 14 3-pointers, second-most in a single game in program history — Sara Scalia hit eight of them in her best performance since transferring to IU last year.
Head coach Teri Moren harped on her team’s defense for a lot of the beginning of this season, but it’s started moving in the right direction the last several games. IU can still play even better on both ends, though, and there are definitely things to clean up around the edges. The Hoosiers are shooting just 68.8 percent at the free-throw line, which is 202nd in the country and 12th in the Big Ten.
Holmes is this team’s main alpha, as was expected entering the year. But she hasn’t been quite as dominant as she was last season. Her numbers — while still strong — are down nearly across the board. She hasn’t been quite as smooth in anticipating double-teams and working out of them as she was last season, and she hasn’t been quite the defensive force she was last year. Moren hasn’t been afraid of saying Holmes needs to play better, though any such statements are born from high expectations. And — to be clear — the graduate student has still played well this season and leads IU in scoring. She sits at exactly 2,100 career points, just 264 shy of Tyra Buss’ program record.
Scalia and Yarden Garzon have been two of the biggest positives on IU’s roster so far. Scalia flashed at times last season, but she was adapting to a different role at IU than she played at Minnesota and sometimes struggled to stay engaged and impactful when her shot wasn’t falling. But the fifth-year senior has been outstanding this year, leaping from 9.5 ppg to 16.5. Scalia’s hitting her shots — she’s shooting nearly 48 percent from 3-point range, ranking 16th in the country and first in the Big Ten. And she’s playing really well defensively, as well.
Garzon’s scoring is up, from 11.1 ppg to 12.9, and she’s expanded her game this season to be less reliant on the 3-pointer. She’s still shooting well beyond the arc, at 45 percent, but she’s added a post-up game she didn’t have last year, and has been much more aggressive getting out in transition. Of course, she’s done all that while worrying about her family back in Israel and advocating for the release of hostages taken by Hamas.
Parrish has played well to start this season, but it feels like we’re still waiting for a signature game from her. Her 17 second-half points against Maine, after getting shut out in the first half, was critical for the Hoosiers when they badly needed someone to step up. But Parrish is capable of even better performances. Chloe Moore-McNeil has played like her typical self — reliably solid. She’s a very good defender, runs the point with poise, and can knock down shots. The senior once again ranks highly in assist-to-turnover ratio at 3.73 — 12th in the country and first in the Big Ten.
IU’s depth is a bit of a question mark going into conference play. Lilly Meister is usually first off the bench, and she’s been a great rebounder, at 13.2 rebounds per 40 minutes. But she doesn’t provide the scoring threat that Scalia did in that role last year. Lexus Bargesser has played the most minutes off the bench and has taken a step forward since last season. But she needs to continue developing her game to be able to make a bigger impact off the bench — she didn’t score against any of IU’s major non-conference opponents, nor against Rutgers.
Freshman Lenée Beaumont has shown promise in her first collegiate action — she’s IU’s leading scorer off the bench (5.1 ppg). She scored nine against Stanford, though her minutes came as a result of the lopsided score; she played just five minutes against Tennessee and Princeton and four against Rutgers. Beaumont will have a chance to play meaningful minutes in conference play if she can continue growing on the court, particularly defensively. Fellow freshman Jules LaMendola has had a tougher adjustment to this level. She’s had some better moments the last few games, but appears to be further away from being a serious contributor than Beaumont right now.
Indiana may need more production from the bench to reach its full potential this season. Moren typically plays a tight rotation, so even if it’s only Meister and Bargesser that take that step, it would be big. The starters aren’t playing an excessive amount of minutes thus far, but the heavy reliance on the starters for production may be unsustainable.
Where IU stands
It still feels like Indiana hasn’t played its best basketball of the season — which is a good thing. The Hoosiers are steadily improving as a whole, but still have things to clean up around the edges. And they’d rather save their best for later in the season than peak in December.
The biggest question about this team entering the season was how it would adapt with Grace Berger gone. Her absence hasn’t really been felt in the scoring department, or even really in playmaking. It’s impacted IU’s depth, with no veteran scorer coming off the bench now. And at times, it’s been most noticeable in the team’s toughness. The Stanford and Maine games, along with some smaller stretches in other games, have seen IU show uncharacteristically lower effort in some areas. Berger wasn’t wired to play that way and refused to let those around her do that either. This IU team still has strong leadership, but there have been some slip-ups.
Still, the Hoosiers are in pretty good shape entering conference play. Their primary players are all healthy — UT Marin transfer Sharnecce Currie-Jelks missed the Bowling Green game, but she hasn’t played enough minutes to make a tangible impact anyway. Health is an important factor for everyone, but it will be particularly paramount for this IU team with the inexperienced bench.
The Big Ten will be tough. Caitlin Clark (30.5 points, 7.4 assists per game) and No. 2 Iowa look like one of the top teams in the country once again. No. 17 Ohio State is also strong — this is the first week all season the Buckeyes are ranked behind IU in the AP Poll, and they’re loaded with talent like Jacy Sheldon (19.1 ppg), Cotie McMahon (13.8 ppg), and Taylor Thierry (13.3 ppg). Maryland lost three of its first five games — though two came against No. 1 South Carolina and No. 15 UConn — but the typically-strong Terps have now won seven straight and will be tough in conference play.
Nebraska has looked solid, with early Big Ten Freshman of the Year contender Natalie Potts (10.8 ppg) giving the Cornhuskers a stronger third option to go with Alexis Markowski (17.3 ppg) and Jaz Shelley (13.1 ppg). Minnesota, under a new regime, also looks dangerous behind a strong start for sophomore Mara Braun (20.2). Michigan, Michigan State, and Penn State could be difficult opponents as well.
But IU is in a good spot nonetheless. The Hoosiers still look like part of a clear top three in the conference, along with Iowa and Ohio State.
We could find out a lot about Indiana in the next few weeks. Sunday begins a stretch of five games in 14 days, with matchups against Michigan (home), Nebraska (away), Penn State (home), and Iowa (away) in addition to the Fighting Illini on New Year’s Eve. If the Hoosiers emerge from that period near the top of the conference standings, it would set them up well to try and defend their Big Ten title.
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