BLOOMINGTON – If a December college basketball game can ever be considered a must-win, Indiana's matchup against Penn State tonight would qualify.
The Hoosiers have come out of the gate slowly in the Big Ten race, dropping two straight games to open the conference schedule, both of which they led in the second half. They're one of only four teams in the league without a conference victory so far and a loss against the Nittany Lions, who are also among that winless quartet, would drop Indiana back to .500 for the season overall.
The bottom line is that, if the Hoosiers have NCAA Tournament expectations, they can't afford to lose games at home against teams that seem likely to finish in the bottom half of the Big Ten. Penn State isn't a bad team – the Nittany Lions proved that with a resounding 75-55 victory over then-No. 15 Virginia Tech in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge – but it is also not one of the Big Ten's elite. Giving away games against better teams, as Indiana did last week against Northwestern and Illinois, leaves the Hoosiers with less room for error against lower-tier conference opponents and right now that margin for error is almost completely non-existent. An 0-3 start in conference play would make Indiana's road to Big Ten title contention extraordinarily arduous and it would further erode the confidence of a young team still figuring out how good it can be.
Yet just because Indiana needs this game in the worst way does not mean that a good performance will lead to an easy victory. The Nittany Lions are better than their 3-3 record and feature the type of guard-heavy attack that could give Indiana fits on the perimeter if the Hoosiers don't take care of the ball. Penn State likes to push the ball up the floor and its defense is set up to facilitate those opportunities as the Nittany Lions pressure opposing guards and force more than 15 turnovers per game. The Hoosiers are coming off a loss to Illinois in which they turned the ball over only eight times, their fewest since Nov. 30 against Providence, but that new-found stinginess with the ball will be tested tonight.
When Penn State gets into its half-court offense, the Nittany Lions like to shoot 3-pointers. And they make them. The visitors tonight are 45th in the country with nearly 27 attempts from beyond the arc per game and 83rd nationally in 3-point shooting percentage at 36.6%. That's the type of game the Nittany Lions have to play because their top five scorers are all 6-foot-6 or shorter. Long-time big man Mike Watkins graduated after last season, leaving Penn State without much of a post presence this season, though 6-9 senior John Harrar does provide some muscle in the middle.
Penn State's small-ball lineups create some matchup problems for opponents, but they also create some opportunities for Indiana, which was stymied in the middle against Illinois on Saturday. In particular, forward Trayce Jackson-Davis could be in for a big game. The 2019 Indiana Mr. Basketball had a season-low 11 points against the Fighting Illini, shooting just 3 for 13 as he was hounded all afternoon by Illinois big man Kofi Cockburn. Penn State doesn't have anyone in Cockburn's stratosphere as a post defender and Jackson-Davis has shown a propensity to bounce back with big games after rough performances. Coach Archie Miller said this week that a few big plays in key moments have separated Indiana from a much better start in the Big Ten. Jackson-Davis is the type of player who can make those plays for the Hoosiers and might be called upon to do so down the stretch against Penn State.
A victory over a Nittany Lions team in transition – Penn State is playing under an interim coach, Jim Ferry, after Pat Chambers resigned shortly before the season – would not be enough by itself to save Indiana's season over the long term, but it would be a sign that the Hoosiers aren't going to be an afterthought in the Big Ten this season. It's Year 4 of the Archie Miller Era and these are the games Indiana needs to win. A good performance without a victory won't cut it tonight.