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Crunch-time: Can Indiana make it 2-0 against Minnesota when it matters most?

Rob Phinisee looks for an open man against Purdue in West Lafayette last week. IU tied a season-low of 49 points in the loss. (Kurt Spitler/HN)

Per usual this season, Indiana has found itself in a state of uncertainty.

After an 0-2 week, losses at Purdue and at Illinois have mitigated previous momentum built up from Indiana winning three of its past four prior to the Purdue and Illinois losses.

Now, with Indiana holding an 18-11 overall record and 8-10 conference record, there is still much to be determined both for its conference standing and where it fits in the NCAA Tournament picture.

For now, the Hoosiers look to be in the big dance, but by no means are they a lock. In terms of the Big Ten Tournament, the Hoosiers are currently are at a disadvantage.

With the two consecutive losses and Purdue holding the tiebreaker, Indiana is currently at the No. 11 spot in the Big Ten standings. This means that if the regular season were to end today, Indiana would be without a bye in the tournament and open play on the Wednesday of the tournament.

Strong performances in Indiana’s last two regular season games is imperative to potentially gain another day of rest for the conference tournament, while also solidifying any chances at an NCAA Tournament bid.

The second-to-last game comes at home on Wednesday when Indiana hosts Minnesota. The two teams met not that long ago on Feb. 19 when Indiana beat Minnesota on the road 68-56 for the team’s second road win of the year.

Since that loss, Minnesota has gone 1-2, beating Northwestern handily on the road and narrowly losing to Maryland and Wisconsin by a combined three points. Minnesota is now 13-15 with a 7-11 record in the Big Ten, good for No. 12 in the conference standings.

The losing record doesn’t really tell the story though, as Minnesota is still a very talented team and should challenge Indiana, just as it did in the first matchup.

In that first game, Minnesota led for the majority of the first half and had it at a three-point game with 3:49 to go, but Indiana eventually pulled away to finish the game.

A major reason why Indiana handled Minnesota the way it did was because Indiana severely limited Minnesota’s star power, and especially sophomore center Daniel Oturu. Following suit of this strategy will be important for another possible Hoosier win over the Golden Gophers.

Oturu was held to just 11 points, nine points under his average of 20. Oturu also shot poorly, only making 5-of-15 of his looks from the field.

Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis dominated the Big Ten’s second-leading scorer defensively and got the best of him on the offensive end too. Jackson-Davis finished with career highs of 27 points and 16 rebounds.

In addition to Oturu’s off night, Minnesota’s other two leading scorers — Marcus Carr and Gabe Kalscheur, who average about 16 and 11 points, respectively — were kept in check too. Carr had 12 points and Kalscheur was held to six.

That trio’s output was representative of a larger, excellent defensive effort as a whole from Indiana. Other than those contributions and Payton Willis’ 11, no other Minnesota player had more than six points.

Replicating a similar defensive effort is key for another win over Minnesota, but Indiana should look to share the wealth a bit more offensively than they have as of late.

Against Minnesota, Indiana’s offense was all Jackson-Davis on his career night plus a great homecoming and 11 points for Race Thompson, while nobody else hit double-digit scoring.

Moreover, Indiana’s past two games both featured one-dimensional offenses. Against Purdue, Indiana struggled with making anything that wasn’t from close-range. Against Illinois, Indiana hit its jumpers but had a hard time on the interior.

Shifting away from the one-dimensional offense, regardless of which aspect is working, is key for Indiana moving forward in March.

A win moves Indiana closer and closer to sealing the Hoosiers’ first NCAA Tournament bid since 2016. A loss hurts those odds and keeps Indiana in the Big Ten’s bottom four, and without a bye in the conference tournament.

Minnesota’s record doesn’t resonate with a big game, but this one is huge for Indiana.

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