Spirits were high for Indiana fans coming into February. The Hoosiers had gone 6-3 over the course of January, including wins over Ohio State and arch-rival Purdue. They were poised to have a high seed in the Big Ten Tournament, and it seemed all but certain that they would make March Madness for the first time in six years. First-year head coach Mike Woodson had his team playing hard and being competitive in the Big Ten gauntlet for the first time in what felt like forever.
So what happened?
How have the Hoosiers gone from 7-4 in the Big Ten to 7-9, just ahead of the likes of Penn State and Maryland?
And where should your hand be in relation to the panic button if you’re a fan?
Well, the short answer is: the Big Ten got difficult. In the first 11 games of Indiana’s Big Ten schedule, they played the bottom five teams in the conference a total of six times (including Nebraska twice). The average KenPom ranking of Indiana’s first 11 opponents was 74.2, while the average ranking of opponents during their five-game losing streak was 31.0.
So, their average opponent ranking went up a whopping 43 spots.
And when you take out Northwestern—in which Indiana was playing without five suspended players—they haven’t played a single team outside of the top 27 in KenPom.
It’s also worth mentioning that Indiana has been playing without guard Rob Phinisee for the past six games. Many Hoosier fans see Phinisee as an impact player, and someone who might be more important than stats lead you to believe.
Indiana was also missing guards Trey Galloway and Khristian Lander in Monday night’s loss to Ohio State. This meant that their depth—especially in the backcourt—was stretched thin. In an overtime battle, this is not to be overlooked. Race Thompson, Trayce Jackson-Davis, and Xavier Johnson all had to play over 39 minutes; you have to imagine stamina was at least partially responsible for their late collapse.
As one might expect when a team goes on a five-game losing streak at a crucial point in the season, Indiana fans are...well, freaking out a bit.
Being an #iubb fan is as miserable this year as it has been the last 4 years. Will things ever change?— Tyler Asher (@HoosierTA) February 22, 2022
Up 4 with a minute to go with the ball you have to win that. That’s on Woodson. #iubb— Hoosier Sports Live (@HoosiersLive) February 22, 2022
IU’s lack of awareness and situational IQ is just a killer. So many flaws in this team. #iubb— Ken Bikoff (@kbikoff) February 22, 2022
Now, I’m not here to make excuses for Indiana’s meltdown, and I know that Indiana fans aren’t interested in moral victories. Fans are certainly right to be disappointed with the coaching staff for not instilling proper fundamentals and situational awareness. Leaving EJ Liddell wide-open under the basket was a defensive brain-fart, and going scoreless over the final two minutes of regulation is all too familiar for the Hoosiers this season (and seasons past).
But let’s pump the brakes here and remember that Mike Woodson is a first-year head coach. Coaches are rarely successful in turning around a program in their first year, and they’re certainly never perfect. Woodson and his staff have work to do in the offseason to fix the problems that have been exposed in Indiana’s blown games this year, but I’m not ready to say they aren’t up for the challenge. And let’s remember that these aren’t even Coach Woodson’s guys. They’re just a bunch of players leftover from a previous failed head coach, who Woodson is making do with as best he can.
Woodson wasn’t brought in to fix Indiana basketball in one year. I don’t think even Bobby Knight in his prime could do that. He was brought to change a culture of complacency and get the Hoosiers back to playing “Indiana basketball”. We saw this earlier in the month when Woodson suspended five players (including two starters) for disciplinary reasons. This meant they ate a bad loss to Northwestern that very well might be the difference between making the tournament and being on the wrong side of the bubble. Whether you agree with this decision or not, it’s just one way Woodson has set the tone that things will not be like they were in the past.
And for what it’s worth, I buy it.
When I watch Indiana, I see a team playing hard and playing together. It’s not always pretty, but it’s certainly more inspiring than Indiana’s teams under Archie Miller.
I know this narrative is tough to swallow as a fan that wants to see their team succeed right away. Trust me, as a DEPAUL FAN, I know all too well. It seems like it's the same story over and over; the vicious cycle of getting your hopes up and getting disappointed repeating time and again. I’ve started to have doubts of my own about the direction of DePaul’s program. But it’s important to keep perspective and manage expectations if you want to cope with being a fan of underachieving former powerhouses.
Still, if we’re talking strictly about this year, then yeah, fans should be worried. Indiana is trending in the wrong direction and is now firmly on the bubble—ESPN’s Lunardi has them in the “Last Four In”. Even if they do make the tournament, I have a hard time seeing them win against what will probably be a 5-7 seed.
Whatever happens the rest of the year, my advice to Hoosier fans is this: be patient. If you’re sick of hearing this, that’s fine. You’re free to feel however you want to about your team. As someone who generally roots for Indiana and wants to see them rise back to being a blue-blood (or at least somewhere in that vein), I still believe in Woodson.
However, if the Hoosiers continue trending like this, then it’s probably time to hit the panic button. The team needs to start winning, and soon. And that starts on Thursday at home against Maryland. We’ll have to wait and see what happens then.