It's hard to argue against a 10-game winning streak. It's hard to argue against a 6-0 start in the Big Ten, even in a perceived "down year" for the conference, and any team would love to boast a 3-0 road start in conference. The pollsters have been forced to take notice as the Indiana Hoosiers have cracked the top-25 in both the AP and Coaches for the first time in two months.
The Hoosiers sit atop the Big Ten standings with the Iowa Hawkeyes and if you're betting man, Indiana would actually be the safer bet to stay undefeated in conference longer. Here we see the first perplexity that is the 2015-2016 Indiana Hoosiers. Iowa faces both Purdue (who will look to avenge the embarrassing loss from a few weeks ago), and Maryland both next week. Whereas the Hoosiers don't face a ranked opponent for another three weeks, when they host Iowa on February 11th, which will be just the second ranked opponent IU has faced this year, (and of course the first one being the historically bad loss to Duke back in December).
The Hoosiers have six contests before their first showdown with the Hawkeyes. Indiana will likely be favored in at least four of those games, as the stretch features the teams currently 10th through 13th in the standings. So Indiana will, at worst, be sitting at 19-5, 10-2 with seven games left that currently features five ranked opponents. The last tidbit should raise a red flag for those in Hoosier Nation that haven't repressed the memory of last season. At this time last year, Indiana was 15-4, and 5-1 in conference coming off of an absolute dismantling of a ranked Maryland squad. Tom Crean was in Coach of the Year discussions at that point, for crying out loud. But what followed was a 4-8 finish, 5-10 if you include the postseason.
Even if Indiana "collapses" in the final month of the season (say going 2-5 or 3-4 for arguments sake) , it's hard to imagine the Hoosiers being left out of what is going to likely be the most open field in recent NCAA Tournament memory as Ricky O'Donnell over at the mother site has pointed out.
Beyond schedule speculation, no one can deny that Indiana's defense has improved since the disaster at Cameron Indoor, giving up 65.1 points per game during the current winning streak. Some are even pointing to the absence of James Blackmon Jr., who will miss the rest of the season due to a second knee surgery in a calendar year, as a possible reason for the improvement to the Hoosiers' defense.
Now I find it a bit ludicrous to pin the complete defensive ineptitude that plagued Indiana in the early season on one player. However, I will buy in that the large void in minutes and points per game left by the sophomore guard has created an opportunity for players to increase their roles and those roles may better suit the Hoosiers, compared to having another guy who can shoot from outside extremely well, but not much else.
Basically everyone on Indiana's roster can shoot from 3-point range with some proficiency. Again, it goes back to the question that faced the Hoosiers at the beginning of the season and that was the depth, or lack thereof, the front-court. Collin Hartman and Max Bielfeldt have both seen an increase in minutes, along with freshman OG Anunoby, who had a bit of a coming out party in the one-point win over Wisconsin, scoring 11 points.
Additionally, the absence of Blackmon seems to have reaffirmed that Kevin "Yogi" Ferrell is the leader of this team. Ferrell has had little to no chill since Blackmon suffered his injury, scoring 99 points over the last five games, with simple math saying that comes in at just under 20 points per. Pair that with Thomas Bryant's ridiculous 72-percent shooting from the floor this season (currently second-best in the nation), and the Hoosiers have one of the best one-two punches in the NCAA.
So what's the point of this near-700 word rambling?
Well, basically we're stuck in a wait-and-see stasis with the Hoosiers for the time being. Important questions like, how good is this team and what are realistic tournament expectations likely won't have a concrete answer for another month or so. As long as Indiana can avoid disasters against bottom-tier teams in the conference over the next few weeks, IU will be in the drivers seat when it comes to the Big Ten title race, and who would have thought we'd be saying that a month ago?