The most important week of the season starts right now for Indiana basketball.
That may sound silly due to the timing and quality of opponents. It’s mid-February and Indiana plays two home games against fellow bubble team Minnesota (13-8), and Michigan State (10-8) who is No. 11 in the Big Ten standings.
None of that context really matters, though. At 11-9 and only five guaranteed regular season games remaining for Indiana, the Hoosiers needs as many wins as possible and they need them fast.
Selection Sunday is less than a month away and as things currently stand, Indiana is firmly entrenched on the bubble. The Hoosiers have to build some momentum down the stretch and get wins to play themselves out of the bubble and comfortably into the NCAA Tournament field.
The reason this week is so important is because these two games are Indiana’s most winnable games left on the schedule.
After Wednesday’s game with Minnesota and Saturday’s contest with Michigan State, Indiana has a tough stretch to close out the regular season.
- Wednesday, Feb. 24: at Rutgers (12-7)
- Saturday, Feb. 27: vs No. 3 Michigan (14-1)
- Saturday, March 6: at Purdue (13-8)
It is still possible that Indiana could add two more games to that slate by making up road contests with Michigan State and Michigan. Both games were postponed in January due to both opponents’ troubles with COVID-19.
There has been no official ruling about whether or not those games will be scheduled yet.
Regardless of if those games get played, it’ll serve Indiana well to compile wins now and not be desperate later. This is not to say Indiana can’t win the last three games, but they’ll be tremendously more difficult.
Two of the games are on the road at two very difficult places to play: the Rutgers Athletic Center and Mackey Arena. Then, the home game is against the No. 3 team in the country. Moreover, Indiana has never defeated Michigan or Purdue in the Archie Miller era.
If Indiana were to gather two wins this week, that would certainly ease a bit of the pressure in those three difficult games to end the regular season. They’d also have good momentum going into those games, putting the Hoosiers into the right mindset for a potential upset.
Make no mistake, though — Indiana’s games this week are not going to be a cake walk. They’ll likely be very, very intense and difficult as Minnesota and Michigan State are both desperate to get wins late in the year, just like Indiana.
Minnesota has a decent record at 13-8 with some really good wins, but is on the bubble because it has yet to win a road game. The Golden Gophers only have two opportunities left to improve their 0-7 away record and Indiana is one of them.
The Hoosiers will have to focus on limiting star Minnesota guard and one of the Big Ten’s best players in Marcus Carr. The redshirt junior is scoring 19.4 points per game and leads the conference in total assists (109).
Minnesota also has a budding star in Liam Robbins, a 7-foot junior center and transfer from Drake. He is averaging 12.6 points and 7.1 rebounds per game.
Michigan State, on the other hand, has had a major down year by comparison to its usual standards. After starting their season 6-0, the Spartans have lost eight of their past 12 games. Most recently, Michigan State got destroyed at home last Saturday against No. 11 Iowa, 88-58.
Before they play Indiana on Saturday, they’ll face Purdue in West Lafayette on Tuesday.
From a big picture perspective, Indiana needs to do its homework now and gather wins in this last stretch. It doesn’t matter who IU beats, but this week lends itself to a better likelihood of victory.
Assuming everything stays on as planned, Indiana should have the Big Ten Tournament for more opportunities to support its resume, too. While a win or two there would be really helpful, an early exit could really hurt the team's chances if Indiana is still on the bubble by then.
The Hoosiers have created a bad habit of hanging around on the bubble until the last minute for the past few seasons and they’re going to want to change that if they don’t want to sweat it out on Selection Sunday.
In 2019, Indiana was one of the First Four Out and just barely missed the tourney. Last year, the tournament was canceled but Indiana would have likely been one of the last teams in the field.
As always, Indiana gets the opportunity to control its own destiny. Wins are its way in, and each loss has Indiana take a step back.
If Indiana is to finally return the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016, the time to make it happen starts now.