For the second time in three weeks, Indiana had what looked like a breakthrough on Sunday. The next task is building some momentum.
In mid-January, IU followed a potentially galvanizing road victory over then-No. 4 Iowa with back-to-back tough losses to Rutgers and Illinois. On Sunday, the Hoosiers defeated the Hawkeyes, then ranked No. 8, for a second time.
Tonight's matchup against Northwestern at Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston, Illinois, gives Indiana (10-8, 5-6 Big Ten) another opportunity to get a winning streak going. The Hoosiers have not won more than two games in a row this season.
“You are constantly looking for that opportunity to break through, and as you have a big win you can take your foot off the pedal so to speak and take a deep breath,” coach Archie Miller said. “That is really not what we can afford to do. We have to continue to push the way we have been pushing.
“It is a big week for us, everybody coming down the home stretch playing for a lot. We are just trying to continue to build on where we are at. Our last week in particular, I think our staff and our team's effort level has been good. Our defensive intensity is right there.”
The Hoosiers and Wildcats met earlier this season, with Northwestern overcoming a second-half deficit to win 74-67 at Assembly Hall despite 22 points and nine rebounds from Indiana's Trayce Jackson-Davis.
Back then, the Wildcats (6-10, 3-9) were the surprise of the early Big Ten schedule.
They started the conference slate 3-0, including wins over Michigan State and Ohio State, to climb into the top 25. Since then, however, Northwestern has lost nine straight to fall to 13th in the league standings.
Its most recent defeat was a 75-70 loss at Purdue on Saturday, the seventh game against a ranked opponent during the losing skid. Indiana is under no illusion that Northwestern will roll over for the Hoosiers.
“They're a really good team and I knew that before the first time we played them,” Miller said. “They whipped us. We didn't play well in any phase and they took advantage of us. They can really shoot the ball, they have a really underrated low-post presence and they're really, really smart in terms of the way they execute offensively.
“It's a difficult game for us. ... They've played a very difficult schedule and they're right there. We're going to have to be really, really ready and have to be a lot better than we were the first time.”
When Northwestern played Purdue on Saturday, it tried to limit star Boilermaker big man Trevion Williams by playing an ultra-big lineup that featured 6-foot-10 forwards Ryan Young and Pete Nance on the court together and sending them both at Williams when he caught the ball in the post. Williams had only eight points and three rebounds.
After Jackson-Davis torched them the first time, shooting 9-for-12 from the field, the Wildcats might try a similar strategy against him tonight. If so, the Hoosier big man will have to be adept at finding the open man out of the double team and IU's guards will have to hit some outside shots.
The Hoosier backcourt has been much deeper in recent games as freshmen Khristian Lander and Anthony Leal play more minutes in support of starters Al Durham, Armaan Franklin and Rob Phinisee. The freshman class as a whole has taken significant steps forward in the new year and has made the Hoosiers a more complete team.
“All (the freshmen) are putting in a crazy amount of work,” said Lander, who has played double-digit minutes three games in a row after not doing so since Dec. 13. “We're always in the gym getting extra lifts, extra shots up, skill workouts, everything. So I feel like we're putting the work in and when we get in the game, we've gotta show all the work we've been putting in.”
Freshman guard Trey Galloway has been limited in recent games with a back injury and Miller said he likely won't be 100% the rest of the season.
When: 5:30 p.m. today
Where: Welsh-Ryan Arena, Evanston, Ill.
Records: Indiana (10-8, 5-6 Big Ten), Northwestern (6-10, 3-9)
TV: Big Ten Network
Radio: 92.3 FM