Beindit’s Breakdown is a weekly post from BTPowerhouse Manager Thomas Beindit, where he addresses the hottest Big Ten topics that are on his mind. The post will run weekly and will touch a varying number of topics.
Welcome back to another edition of my breakdown of Big Ten basketball. For weeks, I’ve been talking about the league’s struggles and what it could mean for March. It’s been a depressing topic for most Big Ten fans.
And since we’ve talked about that topic so much, let’s talk about some other things. Here are the three things I’m thinking about this week:
1. It’s the most wonderful time of the year . . . for traps.
This is something that doesn’t get much coverage nationally, but something I like to talk about every year. The week before and the week after Christmas are easily the most significant stretch of “trap” games during the college basketball season.
While many teams are getting ready for breaks, presents, and Santa, mid-majors are waiting in the shadows and ready to pounce. Be ready, or your house may end up like the McCallister’s in Home Alone. The RPI burglars are geared up and ready to roll.
For those wondering what I’m talking about, let’s lay out the facts. During the two-week period between December 18th and January 1st (sometimes longer), Power Five conferences schedule a plethora of ‘buy’ games. These games are scheduled to reduce the pressure on coaches and students surrounding Christmas and finals season. Simply put, the idea is that players should be focused on other things than basketball.
As an example, look at the Big Ten’s Thursday night. Six Big Ten teams are in action and none are playing against a quality opponent. The “best” team facing the Big Ten on Thursday is Tennessee Tech, who ranks an underwhelming 199th on KenPom. Every Big Ten team has 82 percent odds or better to win, and five have odds above 95 percent.
However, this slew of weak opponents also sets teams up for deflating performances as well. Players often lose focus in games they “should” win and don’t play to their full potential. Fans saw this on Monday with Indiana losing to Fort Wayne and on Wednesday night with North Carolina being upset by Wofford.
But the scariest part of these games is how damaging they are from an RPI perspective. As mentioned above, almost all of these opponents are weak. In fact, most of them aren’t even bad, they’re terrible. Thus, a loss can be absolutely destructive to a team’s resume. Avoiding a loss here can often decide a postseason bid.
For the Big Ten, things have went according to the plan, so far, with the exception of that Indiana game. However, with more such games on the way, avoiding the trap loss will be crucial. This is even more true in a down year for the league.
2. What’s wrong with Indiana?
Of course, as mentioned earlier, Indiana suffered a crushing loss on Monday night when the Hoosiers lost at home to Fort Wayne. It was Indiana’s second straight loss to Fort Wayne and its second home loss to a mid-major team at home this season.
So, what went wrong?
Well, to start, we need to establish something important: Indiana simply isn’t that good of a team this season. Fans were hoping some players could surprise, but that just hasn’t been the case. Even though Juwan Morgan has been great and De’Ron Davis has had some moments, there just aren’t enough tier-one players on this roster.
Unlike in years past, Indiana can’t rely on simply “out talenting” opponents anymore. The Hoosiers can’t show up, put in a poor effort, get outcoached, and expect to come out on top. Those days are in the past. Maybe they will return one day, but it’s not going to be during the 2017-’18 season.
But, even if we acknowledge that Indiana isn’t a great team, there’s no excuse for losing to teams like Indiana State and Fort Wayne at home. The Hoosiers may not be able to “out talent” other Big Ten opponents, but Indiana shouldn’t be losing to underwhelming teams from the Missouri Valley Conference and the Summit League.
So, again, what’s happening?
The reality here is a bit tricky. Part of this comes from the issues described above. Indiana doesn’t have the margin of error that it had in the past. Take Monday’s game for example. In years past, Indiana probably enters that game as a 20+ point favorite. However, this time, KenPom favored the Hoosiers by just 12 points.
While eight or nine points may not sound all that important, it’s crucial. Those mid-major teams are no longer playing against Dad in one-on-one college basketball. They’re now playing against their older brother. Still a difficult matchup, but far less intimidating and, more importantly, a far more beatable opponent.
And when you add in an inconsistent roster into the equation, Indiana becomes far more susceptible to upsets. On a nightly basis, there’s almost no telling what Indiana is going to get out of players like Davis, Aljami Durham, and Josh Newkirk. In fact, just look at Davis’ last six games. He scored a combined 43 points in three of the games and a combined 13 points in the others. Not exactly great consistency.
All told, I think the answer to Indiana’s struggles is two-fold. While Hoosier fans would like to think differently, these losses are symptoms of bigger issues. Indiana simply isn’t that good of a team and relies too much on inconsistent options. With a decreased margin of error, inconsistency will lead to losses like on Monday night.
3. Friday’s Northwestern and Oklahoma matchup looks massive.
Remember when I said I wasn’t going to talk about the Big Ten’s early season struggles? Well, I may have lied a little. I do want to talk about it a bit in regard to Northwestern’s matchup on Friday night against Oklahoma.
Perhaps no Big Ten team has been more disappointing this season than Northwestern. Despite entering the season ranked among the nation’s top 25 teams, Northwestern opened the season at 5-4 overall, and with a few disappointing losses. Even after getting back on track the last few weeks, Northwestern sits at just 9-4 overall.
However, the most significant part of Northwestern’s resume is the fact that the Wildcats have yet to beat a quality opponent. The team’s best win likely came in overtime against Illinois on December 1st and the Illini are 8-5 overall. Simply put, Northwestern needs to get a quality win and soon.
Of course, Friday will offer Northwestern an opportunity to do just that. The Wildcats will go on the road to face a rising Oklahoma team and star freshman Trae Young. The Sooners are 9-1 overall, already have wins over Oregon, USC, and Wichita State, and are now ranked 20th on KenPom.
Beating the Sooners won’t be an easy task, but this could be a massive, massive game for Northwestern and its postseason hopes. And considering Oklahoma’s profile, this wouldn’t even be a bad loss. The pressure will be on, but don’t sleep on this game.