There are a lot of ups and downs in college basketball every year. Some teams exceed expectations, some teams meet them, and other teams fall short of expectations. For Indiana in 2013-2014, they have failed to meet preseason expectations. Now, few seriously considered Indiana a Big Ten title and Final Four candidate when the season began. Any team losing two NBA Lottery picks and 4 starters would take a pretty big hit and considering that many of Indiana's replacements would be on the young inexperienced side, this hit could even be perceived as larger for Indiana coming into this year.
Still, fans were hoping for the team to be competitive and most in the national media figured that this was a Top 25 squad that may not win the Big Ten like last year, but could at least challenge the top teams, especially at home. So far this season, results have been mixed. Indiana is 10-5 overall and 0-2 in the Big Ten, but what is perhaps more significant is that Indiana has still yet to record a marquee win. For a program that simply expects to be relevant in March, it has to be alarming to consider that one of the essential elements of a tourney bid (a marquee win), is currently not present on Indiana's resume we're already in 2014.
There are a few ways to look at Indiana's season so far. First, the pessimistic outlook. Going through the non-conference season without a marquee win is one thing, but for Indiana, it is a little perplexing. The Hoosiers have had 5 opportunities to record a big win this year and have fallen short everytime. Though the roster is loaded with talent, the only guys that have really been good have been Yogi Ferrel and Noah Vonleh. Guys like Will Sheehey have been decent, but have not done what they needed to in order to progress Indiana to that next level. Add in a thin frontcourt and a constant flurry of turnovers and this team clearly has its flaws.
On the other side though, there have been some positives. Though Indiana does not have that big win that has become an essential part of a tournament resume, they also lack a big part of what often knocks teams out of tourney consideration: a bad loss. The Hoosiers have taken care of business when they had the opportunity and though they had great chances for big wins against Connecticut, Notre Dame, and Illinois, none of those contain a red flag. To add on, the team's only loss at home came to an MSU squad that many still consider a favorite for a Final Four run later in the season. Along with this, the team is still young. Maybe parts of the lineup are thin, but some of the young guys have also displayed some great potential including Troy Williams and Stanford Robinson. With this many young guys, one would think that the team would only get better over time.
Considering both of these outlooks, why don't we take a second to discuss a few things that Indiana can do to "save" this season. For this year's team, the goal still has to be an NCAA Tournament. Maybe that changes in a few weeks, but we are going to go with that as the underlying goal. So here are the 3 things Indiana must do to reach that goal:
Keep Taking Care of Business
This should come as something obvious, but Indiana has to keep winning the games they should win. With Indiana's next opponent being Penn State, this is even more clear. Optimistic or not, there has to be a growing sense of urgency within Bloomington right now. One of the essential ways you deal with this is to at least beat the teams that you should beat. Again, maybe this is a obvious, but it's way more important this year with improved Nebraska and Penn State squads. Over the course of the Big Ten season, Indiana gets 2 games with Nebraska, Northwestern, and Penn State. Unless Indiana does something incredible in the Big Ten Tournament or starts knocking off big name opponents at home (both would be tough), winning all 6 of these games are absolutely essential. Indiana will not get into the big dance without at least one marquee win, but at this point, it's hard to see them getting in if they lose any of these games. These include 2 of the team's next 3 games. Though the season may not feel on the line right now, in hindsight, it very well could be up for grabs within the next two weeks.
Stay The Course
Indiana is going to get better. This team is stacked with talent. Much of it may be very young and inexperienced, but that will gradually start to correct itself over time. Maybe it doesn't happen until later this year and maybe it doesn't even happen this year, but the base of some very good future teams are there. The other thing worth saying about "staying the course" is that things could easily get worse before they get better. Indiana should be good enough to beat Penn State on the road, Northwestern at home, and Nebraska on the road, but the other upcoming games could be rough. Outside of those 3 games, Indiana is looking at: Wisconsin (home), MSU (road), Illinois (home), Michigan (home), Minnesota (road), and Purdue (road). Do I think Indiana will lose all of those games? Absolutely not. Indiana could definitely beat an Illinois or Michigan at home or a team like Purdue on the road. The problem is that these games could easily be lost as well. The thing here is that even if Indiana gives away a few of these games, it's important to keep in mind that the team will get better over time. Would Indiana achieve their goal if they lost all these games? Probably not, but being realistic about the outcomes is also important. Being optimistic is one thing, but many of these games are going to be toss-ups for IU this season and coming out on top is huge.
Win The Big One(s)
At some point, if Indiana is going to make the NCAA Tournament, they have to upset somebody. This is something that's difficult to project because we don't know exactly how these teams are going to be slated when we reach March. For instance, before the year, many may have looked at Michigan as a team you could beat and be able to cling to that as the "big" win on the year. As of now, I'm not so sure that win alone will get you in. Maybe if you start reeling off wins against the middle teams in the Big Ten (Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota), you can start making an argument, but for a team in Indiana's position without any marquee wins so far, I think you have to realistically beat MSU, OSU, or Wisconsin. Now, if weird things happen in the Big Ten Tournament that's another thing, but otherwise, I think you have to knock one of these three down. Indiana has four guaranteed games against these teams remaining: MSU (road), OSU (home), and Wisconsin (home, road). Losing that game against MSU was big because it's hard to picture Indiana going on the road and beating the Spartans. We've seen upsets before, but it's just hard to see happening. The same goes for Wisconsin on the road. This makes those OSU and Wisconsin showdowns in Bloomington incredibly important for Indiana. The one downside is that two of these games (Wisconsin, @MSU) happen in Indiana's next four games. If the Hoosiers keep sliding, some of these valuable opportunities could be gone very quickly. Nothing will be wrapped up if Indiana loses both those games, but you have to worry about Indiana's season going forward if they do let these two opportunities pass by.
Indiana is still a good team. Maybe not great, but a good team. However, the Hoosiers are going to have to improve if they hope to make some real noise later in the year, but everything is still there in front of them to make a real run. Perhaps the biggest thing to note is the potential importance of Indiana's next four games. Indiana has the potential to change the entire outlook of the season either positively or negatively within the next few weeks and it will be incredibly interesting to watch.