Over the summer, I wrote a piece chronicling Indiana's non-conference scheduling. One of the major points I criticized was Indiana's choice of not scheduling a marquee opponent at home. The primary reason I felt this way was because of the probability of Indiana losing all of its marquee games in the non-conference season and being forced to play with its back against the wall during conference season. Whether or not you believe this was a good choice, Indiana's loss to Notre Dame pretty much seals the fact that the Hoosiers will lack a marquee win entering Big Ten play. Considering this, where does this leave Indiana?
As of now, the Hoosiers are just 8-3. Considering the losses came to UConn, Syracuse, and Notre Dame, that certainly is a stronger 8-3 than one might assume. This puts Indiana at #39 on KenPom, but outside of the Top 68 in RPI. Whether you like RPI or not, it is something that gets more important as the season continues since it is well known that the selection committee looks at RPI when making their decisions. As of now, Indiana's "best" win came against Stony Brook (#122 on KenPom) and the team's "worst" loss came against Notre Dame (#52 on KenPom) last Saturday. Nothing really jumps out as being great, but nothing really jumps out as being bad either right now.
Going forward, the Hoosiers have two more non-conference games before they begin a very tough opening stretch to Big Ten play. As they wrap up against Nicholls State and Kennesaw State, it seems almost a guarantee that Indiana will go into their Big Ten opener at 10-3. As mentioned, this may be one of the most confusing 10-3 records one can see across the nation. All three losses are against good teams (none at home), but it would be frustrating to be 13 games into the season without a "good" win on the year. This begs the question: what will it take for Indiana to be a factor in March?
The first point that I want to make is that it seems unlikely Indiana will miss the NCAA Tournament. This is a good team that was just a few plays short of being 10-1 right now with wins over UConn and Notre Dame. To think they won't be able to get some key wins in the next few months is just naive. However, as I mentioned earlier, the Hoosiers are going to be in a very dicey situation in the near future. The next two games should be gimmes, but take a look at that opening stretch of Big Ten play: @Illinois, Michigan State, @Penn State, Wisconsin. Indiana has a chance to win all those games, especially with the challenging ones at home, but they also have a chance to lose all of those games, especially with the easier games on the road.
Think about this hypothetical though. Is it really that crazy to see Indiana losing on the road against Illinois and coming home and losing to Michigan State? Indiana has a great home court advantage, but the Spartans are loaded this year. Plus, llinois has a pretty good home court of their own. Do I think Indiana can go on the road and beat Penn State? Sure, they should, but the Nittany Lions are certainly better than they were last year. Finally, Wisconsin is still undefeated and Indiana has not beaten the Badgers in forever and a half. Is it likely that Indiana loses all four of these games? Probably not, but I would not be surprised to see them go 1-3 and really doubt they can do better than 2-2 in that stretch without some major breaks.
These are the kind of projections that would concern me as an Indiana fan. Nothing ever goes according to plan, but I don't see any of these projections being that unrealistic at this point. If the Hoosiers go 1-3 in that opening stretch, it means they would be 11-6 two weeks into January without a marquee win. Then, if you look at the remaining 14 games, there are still some major challenges on that schedule: Ohio State, @Wisconsin, Michigan twice, @Minnesota, Iowa, @Purdue. Indiana is going to have to work hard for a lot of these wins.
Maybe this is too early (this is too early), but there has to be some rising concern here. This year's Indiana team for some reason just seems to remind me of last year's Iowa squad. Of course, Iowa beat Iowa State in the non-conference season, but they got off to a bad opening start in Big Ten play when they had some big opportunities for quality wins and just could never recover. The Hawkeyes finished 9-9 and missed the NCAA Tournament. If Indiana gets swept by MSU and Wisconsin and loses their challenging road games, their conference record could look somewhere around 10-8. This may not look like a red flag, but it should be for Hoosier fans. This is only one win better than last year's Iowa team and lacks the win Iowa had over Iowa State last year. Basically, what I'm trying to say is that, realistically, Indiana is going to have to beat some of the top conference teams and at least win somewhere on the road to be a factor in March, or make a late run in the Big Ten Tournament. Otherwise, they're going to end up right on the bubble like Iowa was last year.
It's far too early to make serious predictions for March, but it is not too early to take a glance and see what lacking a key non-conference win could do to the Hoosiers. Indiana still has everything in front of them at this moment, but it is going to take some improved play against some quality opponents to make sure they can meet their season goals.