The schedules have finally hit the media and we have finally had time to sit back and evaluate the matchups for the coming season. In terms of Big Ten scheduling, there have been many reactions to the announcements. Excitement about the Big Ten/ACC Challenge games, excitement about some of the late season matchups like Indiana at Michigan to close the season, but also some disappointment as we will be missing out on some great games from last season like a second matchup of Indiana and Purdue.
One of the the groups that have been a bit concerned about scheduling are Hoosier fans. Indiana put together a good season last year and are ranked in the Top 25 according to Sporting News for the upcoming season, which means things are looking pretty good in Bloomington. However, one thing that has been concerning for some fans is the team's home schedule. The Hoosiers have faced some pretty great teams at home in recent years including North Carolina last season and Kentucky (who went on to become the eventual national champions), but the shoe seems to be on the other foot this year.
There are some big opponents coming to Bloomington, but almost all of them appear in the Big Ten schedule and not in games specifically scheduled by Indiana. The Hoosiers do play some big non-conference competition including Syracuse, Notre Dame, and the 2K Sports Classic, but almost all of these events are on the road. This doesn't mean Indiana will be a bad team or have no big game experience before conference season begins, but the fact that Hoosiers fans will probably have to wait until the beginning of 2014 to see a big game at home is a little disheartening to say the least.
So why am I bringing this up? It's not like Indiana is locked out of winning the Big Ten title or the NCAA Tournament because they don't have a big non-conference opponent at home. Heck, scheduling away and neutral games may even help them in RPI and postseason seeding. Regardless, I have two main reasons for concern.
First, what if Indiana struggles early? This is going to be a very young and inexperienced squad. They have some players with experience at some key positions including point guard, but there's no doubt that there is going to be a learning curve. Would anyone really be that surprised if it took until February or March before the team really started clicking? Gaining early season confidence and resume wins are key in fostering growth and a successful season. Look at what MSU did last year with Kansas. The Spartans beat Kansas very early and relied heavily on that for seeding at the end of the year. Most people would argue that Kansas was better than MSU, but because they stole that game early in the year, they were able to use that to build their resume all season. The Hoosiers probably wouldn't have beaten Kansas (even at home) early this year, but there are plenty of other good opponents they could have a good chance at beating at home.
Just think about this scenario. For all extents and purposes, the Hoosiers will have 3 legitimate non-conference challenges. The 2K Sports Classic, Syracuse (road), and Notre Dame (neutral). Let's assume Indiana struggles early in the season. Not as bad as say Purdue from last year, but enough in that they lose to Syracuse and lose to Notre Dame. They make it past Washington and into the finals of the 2K Sports Classic, but get handled by a very talented UConn squad. Indiana races through the rest of its non-conference schedule, but lacks a signature win as they enter conference play.
I don't think this would cause Indiana to miss the NCAA Tournament as they will have plenty of legitimate challenges in conference play, but lacking that "big" win entering conference play has to put more pressure on the team and take a little swagger out of the sails. Plus, it's not like the first few conference games are locks either. They go on the road to Illinois, then face MSU at home. If Indiana were to do the above scenario and lose those two games, the pressure would be all over the program (whether it's deserved or not). Home games are not guaranteed wins by any means, but it certainly helps to create an edge, especially if you play at a place like Assembly Hall. Getting a few big wins at home can go a long way towards avoiding a slide and downward trend in a relatively inexperienced team.
The other reason for concern is a much smaller one and mainly for the fanbase. Hoosiers fans will show up and will be excited to watch their team as always, but Samford and North Florida aren't going to get the blood boiling the same as a North Carolina or Kentucky. Most fans like to go to exciting games and look forward to their teams scheduling interesting teams. Even if they're not the best, it's always fun to schedule a team that could show up and play a quality game. Think about even scheduling a Missouri, Kansas State, or North Carolina State. These are just a few examples, but would have made for some interesting home opponents and maybe even a few big non-conference wins to get the season off to the right start.
The schedule is not going to make or break this year's Hoosier team. The ultimate result will be on the players and coaches, but there are some reasons to be concerned about some pretty weak home scheduling. Early season wins and momentum can go a long way towards shaping a team, helping them in postseason seeding, and helping them through the rigors of the Big Ten schedule. Indiana could still pull off some major non-conference wins with teams like Syracuse on the schedule, but bringing teams like that to Assembly Hall would have certainly helped the Hoosiers. We don't know every detail about why Indiana schedules certain teams at certain times, but what we do know is that Indiana might have a little tougher road as a result of the athletic departments decisions. We'll just have to wait and see how the Hoosiers respond.