Since the Indiana Hoosiers captured the Big Ten regular season title in 2013, conference play, especially down the stretch the past two seasons, has been nothing short of a struggle for Tom Crean and company. A 4-8 record after a 5-1 conference start last season was enough to put Crean right back on the hot seat.
With expectations being sky high this season, a .500 record simply won't cut it. Fortunately, this year's Big Ten slate appears to line up favorably for Indiana.
- Home/Away: Nebraska, Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa
- Home Only: Ohio State, Northwestern, Purdue, Maryland
- Away Only: Rutgers, Michigan, Penn State, Michigan State
The Hoosiers' early conference schedule sets IU up to garner enough wins to counter any January-February slump. Indiana starts off with trips to Rutgers and Nebraska and returns to Assembly Hall for four of the next five, a trip to Minnesota sandwiched in-between. Conceivably, IU can go 6-1 in this stretch without too much of an issue, Wisconsin being the biggest test early. Anything worse than 5-2 in the early going should be considered a letdown.
January 26th features a trip to Madison, Wisconsin, which at that point the drought at Wisconsin will be old enough to be tried as an adult, (18 years, 1 day). Even with the pieces the Badgers lost in Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker, I cannot, being in somewhat sound conscience and mind, can't imagine the Hoosiers winning this one, considering it's a Super Tuesday game on ESPN, this will likely be the 2nd toughest environment IU faces behind the trip to Duke in November.
The next four games are another manageable stretch for the Hoosiers, the toughest game being a second straight appearance on Super Tuesday as the Hoosiers travel to face the expected-to-be-much-improved Michigan Wolverines. It is in this grouping where we see IU's third "away only" opponent in Penn State. Someone must really like Indiana in the Big Ten scheduling office seeing as how the Hoosiers were given the bottom two from last season's conference standings as half of it's AO schedule.
The final third of the schedule is collectively the toughest part of the schedule for Indiana, because of course the schedule would be set up for a third straight stumble. Indiana travels to face Michigan State, where the Hoosiers arguably played their worst game last season. IU has lost four-straight to the Spartans, but more importantly, fans only have to suffer through the Crean-Tom Izzo storyline being driven down their collective throats once this season.
February 20th shows the unfortunate side of the Big Ten's current scheduling system as Indiana faces arch-rival Purdue for the only time in the regular season, the second time in three years this has occurred. The Boilermakers swept IU last season, and as added incentive, this game could have major implications on both teams' chances at a conference title.
Clearly, the schedulers knew what they were doing with the finale of the conference season. The two teams most media outlets have predicted to finish at the top of the standings will face off at Assembly Hall. Maryland and Indiana split the series last season, with the home team taking the win in both matchups. Hoosiers fans that were disappointed in College Gameday's absence in Bloomington last weekend can take solace that at least one of the the last two mentioned games will likely bring ESPN's basketball edition of the show to Indiana.
Overall, it appears that IU's 2016 conference schedule has the tough opponents spread out enough to help the Hoosiers avoid any extended losing streaks. In fact, looking over the schedule it is difficult to pinpoint anywhere where the Hoosiers would suffer back-to-back losses. The road schedule sets up Indiana for a likely recreation of 2013, where the final game of the regular season ends up being the conference championship.