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What To Watch For: IU welcomes Penn State in desperate need for first conference win

Indiana basketball has not begun conference play pleasantly, digging itself a hole already.

Following a solid, 5-2 nonconference effort, Indiana has suffered an 0-2 start in the Big Ten for the first time in the Archie Miller era.

The losses both come to good teams in a home game against No. 19 Northwestern last Wednesday, 74-67, and at No. 15 Illinois last Saturday, 69-60. While all four of Indiana’s losses come to ranked opponents — No. 18 Florida State and No. 8 Texas, included with the others — their overall record is still 5-4.

BLOOMINGTON, IN – DECEMBER 26, 2020 – guard Rob Phinisee #10 of the Indiana Hoosiers during the game against the Illinois Fighting Illini and the Indiana Hoosiers at State Farm Center in Champaign, IL. Photo By Missy Minear/Indiana Hoosiers

No matter who you play, a 5-4 record is nothing to write home about and is already putting the Hoosiers’ NCAA Tournament hopes in jeopardy should they keep playing like they are.

Brutal, brutal schedule

It might sound extreme to say this early, but there is reason to be justifiably concerned with Indiana’s chances after only nine games.

For starters, it’s a shortened season and there are no more cupcakes left on the schedule. Indiana is exactly one-third through its regular season slate and has 18 straight Big Ten games left.

The Big Ten has been an absolute bloodbath as expected, too. Obviously, rankings change every week, but if this week’s AP poll theoretically stayed the same for the rest of the season, Indiana would have 13 ranked opponents in its remaining 18 games.

Additionally, while outside of the Texas game Indiana has been close and competitive in all of its losses, there are concerning trends that relate to why these losses are occurring.

Indiana has not proven to be able to execute down the stretch in close games against ranked teams. Against Florida State, Northwestern and Illinois, Indiana had chances to seal the deal late but just couldn’t do it.

There are a lot of underlying factors to why they blew each of those games, but the bottom line is that they lost all three of their close opportunities against ranked teams thus far. Even if they only won one of those games, the perception and outlook of their season to this point is far different.

Now, with the remaining 18 Big Ten games left, importance of each game is amplified with no cushion support from the early part of the season’s record. The one positive for Indiana is that the team will have plenty of opportunities to bolster its resume for a potential NCAA Tournament berth.

Penn State is no pushover

With the dire nature of Indiana’s season noted, the team needs to get back on the right foot, immediately. The Hoosiers can absolutely not afford to go 0-3 in the Big Ten.

They will have one of the easier games in their conference slate next with Penn State visiting Bloomington on Wednesday.

The idea that Penn State is an “easier” should be taken very lightly, though. That is only said because Penn State is not one of the nine ranked Big Ten teams and is off to a much slower start than the majority of the league.

At this point, Penn State is 3-3, but the team’s record is quite deceiving. The Nittany Lions do have a good win at formerly No. 15 Virginia Tech, winning by 20, 75-55. Their losses are where things are quite interesting.

They’ve lost to Seton Hall, at Michigan, and Illinois. The games they lost, though, have been by an average of 4.3 points against all very respectable teams with two of them being ranked. That profile is quite similar to Indiana, further showing that this could be a very competitive game between the Hoosiers and Nittany Lions.

Moreover, the Big Ten has proven this year that no matter where a team is ranked or viewed historically, none of that matters this season. Northwestern is off to an undefeated start and Monday night featured two big-time upsets.

Maryland, who was 0-2 in conference prior, beat No. 6 Wisconsin on the road. Then, No. 21 Minnesota, who had seemingly come out of nowhere this season, dominated No. 17 Michigan State, winning 81-56.

New roles for Penn State

Considering the Big Ten’s wildness this year, anything is possible in the Penn State matchup for Indiana, and there will likely be plenty of uncertainty. What is known is that Penn State is without former star Lamar Stevens for the first time in four years.

Stevens was the identity of a rising Penn State program before his and his team’s special season season was cut short last year. Shortly before the season started, longtime Pat Chambers was fired due to some internal issues within the program, too.

Indiana’s Race Thompson guarding Lamar Stevens in Indiana’s win over Penn State last year on Feb. 23, 2020 (Kurt Spitler/HN)

The Nittany Lions are now led by interim head coach Jim Ferry and a contingent of players who have been required to step up into new roles this year. Juniors Izaiah Brockington, Myreon Jones, Sam Sessoms, and sophomore Seth Lundy lead the way for Penn State.

All four players are double-digit scorers, but Brockington has really come into his own this year and reached another level. He was an 8.1-points-per-game scorer last year in a sixth-man role, but this season he is leading the team with 15.2 points per game.

He has a 51.4% clip from the field and is a 46.7% 3-point shooter, too. In addition, he grabs 5.2 rebounds per game as a guard.

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