BLOOMINGTON – When the Big Ten schedule was released, it looked as though the schedule-makers had done Indiana something of a favor. The Hoosiers would get to open their conference season at home against Northwestern, a team that has finished in the bottom two of the Big Ten in back-to-back seasons. It would be a nice way to build momentum to start the conference season if the Hoosiers could kick off the schedule with a victory.
That still might happen, of course, but it will be a much more difficult task than it seemed four days ago. That's because the last time the Wildcats took the court, they dismantled No. 4 Michigan State, leading nearly wire to wire, shooting 53% in a 79-65 triumph and making the Spartans look thoroughly average. That's an early lesson for the Hoosiers and the rest of the conference: nothing will be easy in the Big Ten this season. Everything will have to be earned.
Indiana can still earn a confidence-building victory to open the conference schedule, but it will have to avoid the type of defensive performance it had in the first half against Butler on Saturday at the Crossroads Classic. The Hoosiers have hung their hat on defense in the early part of the season, but they were out-toughed in the first half against the Bulldogs. Northwestern is a young team and will come in hungry to prove that its upset of the Spartans was no fluke. The Wildcats will force Indiana to defend all over the floor and have the shooters necessary to take advantage if the Hoosiers are lax in their rotations. Northwestern is fifth in the country in 3-point shooting at 43.5% and has six players hitting at least 41% of their shots from deep.
One of the most important pieces for Indiana on both ends of the floor, it appeared Saturday, was Race Thompson. The forward has had a terrific start to the season, but he didn't quite have his normal edge early against Butler. That changed in the second half and the game changed with it as the redshirt junior scored 10 points, all in the second half, grabbed seven rebounds and played stout defense after halftime. When Thompson is playing that way, he opens up space for Trayce Jackson-Davis to maneuver on offense and stand strong on defense, rather than being forced to help in the lane. Thompson's performance tonight will be key against a Wildcats team that features a pair of 6-foot-10 difference-makers in its rotation in junior Pete Nance and sophomore Ryan Young.
On offense, the Hoosiers will try to stick with what has been working, an inside-out game that often runs through Jackson-Davis and creates open shots for everyone else through the gravity of the 2019 Indiana Mr. Basketball's presence. Guard Armaan Franklin has been the primary beneficiary of those open looks in recent games, taking advantage to the tune of 10 3s on 14 attempts in the last two contests. It would be good for Indiana to get someone else going from long range, as well. Junior Robert Phinisee, who has struggled with foul trouble in recent games, would be a natural candidate to get hot from 3-point range.
The Big Ten season will be a grind and tonight the Hoosiers will get their first taste of the best conference in the country. The team's quartet of freshmen will be expected to contribute and provide depth as the season wears on and those youngsters will need to adjust quickly to the physicality of the game. Northwestern is clearly much-improved and a win would not only boost IU's team-wide confidence, but would be a nice NCAA Tournament boost if the Hoosiers and Wildcats are both on the bubble come March.