New life has entered Indiana men’s basketball after beating Minnesota 68-56 on Wednesday for the Hoosiers’ second road win of the season.
The win was desperately needed, and more importantly it came on the road. It also bolstered IU’s NCAA Tournament resume.
With five games left in the regular season, there are five good opportunities for Indiana to add more quality wins as the team seeks to improve its chances of making the tournament.
Sunday will be Indiana’s chance to get the most impressive win of the five remaining games, as the Hoosiers host No. 9 Penn State, a team that has not won in Bloomington since 2014.
The Nittany Lions are the highest ranked team that Indiana has faced all season. Ranked opponents produce mixed results for Indiana — 4-3 on the season. At home, IU is 4-1 against them.
Penn State’s high ranking comes from an excellent 20-6 record and prior to its loss to Illinois on Tuesday, Penn State had won eight straight games.
Can’t repeat prior offensive performance
One of those wins was at University Park back on Jan. 29 when Penn State easily handled Indiana 64-49 in Indiana’s lowest scoring output in a game all season.
Evidently, Indiana laid an egg offensively, but the team did not look any bit engaged in any aspect of the game. Only Trayce Jackson-Davis and Justin Smith scored in double figures with 14 and 13 points, respectively. Other than that, only five other players scored, and nobody had more than six points.
Regardless if the game is at home, Indiana cannot afford to put up that kind of offensive performance and expect a win.
Another defensive showing like the first matchup, which held Penn State 13 points under their season scoring average of 77 points would be very favorable though.
Getting Jackson-Davis involved early and often
To get the offense rolling, the Hoosiers should look to build off what they did in the Minnesota win with a heavy dose of post play, especially with Jackson-Davis.
The Hoosiers looked to get the ball in the post early and often against Minnesota and it paid off in a big way, as Jackson-Davis had a career day with 27 points and 16 rebounds which were both career highs.
When Jackson-Davis isn’t an integral part of the game plan, like Sunday’s matchup with Michigan where he got three shot attempts for the day, Indiana plays badly. Indiana lost by 89-65 in that game.
Jackson-Davis isn’t going to be enough though to take down a team of the caliber of Penn State. IU’s guard play has to be tremendously better than when they played them the first time. In that game, Indiana’s four guards combined for just 10 points.
Difficult Lions to tame
Penn State has a lot of offensive weapons for IU to keep up with. Most notably, 6-foot-8 senior forward Lamar Stevens who is averaging 17.5 points per game — fourth most in the Big Ten. Stevens is one of the most talented players in the conference and also has an impressive 6.8 rebounding average while also being a good post defender with 31 blocks, and an excellent passing big with 58 assists.
Sophomore guard Myreon Jones supplements Stevens’ scoring contribution with 14.4 points per game of his own as the Nittany Lions’ No. 2 option on offense. Jones is a great shooter from the outside too, hitting 41.3 percent of his 3-pointers. Senior Mike Watkins and junior Jamari Wheeler have shown to be key contributors as well.
Watkins is a physical presence on the inside with a 6-foot-9, 257-pound frame. Watkins is shooting an efficient 55.3 percent from the field while doing a great job as a rim protector, with 64 blocks, the second-most in the Big Ten.
Wheeler may not be much of a scorer, only putting up about four points per game, but he is the key to how the offense runs. He is the team’s main distributor with a team-high 85 assists.
Curtis Jones Jr., a senior off the bench — who previously played at Indiana in his freshman and sophomore years — is averaging 6.6 points per game and played well against Indiana in the first matchup, going for 12 points.
With the players listed, it’s evident that Indiana’s got a challenge coming to Assembly Hall with the discipline and talent that Penn State possesses.
Building off the momentum from the Minnesota win, being at home and turning in a complete effort from the frontcourt and backcourt is how Indiana can overcome Penn State though.
A win on Sunday would be massive and further increase Indiana’s odds of earning its first NCAA Tournament bid since 2016.
What kind of Indiana team will show up is always a question, but the certain aspect is that if Indiana wants to get another resume boost and ranked win on Sunday it’ll require the same effort and urgency the team showed against Minnesota.