They Are Who We Thought They Were: Revisiting Indiana and WisconsinPosted by jnowak on February 3rd, 2012
Remember when there was talk of Indiana as a Final Four-caliber team? And that Wisconsin wouldn’t even have a chance at dancing its way to New Orleans because there was an outside chance the Badgers would miss the NCAA Tournament? In calendar terms, those days aren’t that far behind us. But in basketball days, they seem light years away. In a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately society, we tend to get really, really excited about the here and now. Wisconsin loses a string of three games with a couple rare losses at home mixed in, and pundits are wondering what the heck has gone wrong in Madison. Indiana sends shock waves across basketball with a few early-season major upsets and lights up the first half of its schedule, and there seemed to be no limit to what the Hoosiers could do.
Well, about a month after Indiana was 15-1 and Wisconsin dropped three in a row, both clubs have returned to their mean. That is to say, both clubs have either regressed or progressed to just about where we expected them to be at season’s tipoff. Indiana has taken a tremendous step forward under Tom Crean and is showing signs that it will be contending for Big Ten titles soon enough. The Hoosiers are an NCAA Tournament team. Wisconsin, meanwhile, is back to competing for Big Ten championships, frustrating opponents (particularly at the Kohl Center), and dictating pace in the Big Ten.
As far as the Hoosiers are concerned, their fall back down to earth is largely due to a discouraging trend that has plagued Crean’s tenure in Bloomington. Since he arrived, Indiana is 2-31 in Big Ten road games, with both wins coming in State College against Penn State (not exactly like waltzing into Breslin Center or Mackey Arena and doing some damage). This can mostly be attributed to the fact that the Hoosiers have been pretty dismal since Crean came in and was asked to clean up the mess Kelvin Sampson left behind. They’ve improved, certainly, but their talent lies in their youth. And young teams simply do not fare well in hostile conference road environments.
That said, there was also little indication from the non-conference slate that the Hoosiers would be able to withstand a tough test outside of Bloomington. Entering Big Ten play, the Hoosiers’ only games outside Assembly Hall were road games against N.C. State and Evansville and a meeting in Indianapolis against Notre Dame (the Wolfpack and Irish are both currently NCAA Tournament bubble teams). And since coming up against arguably the deepest and toughest conference in the country, the Hoosiers have maintained their torrid offensive pace (a Big Ten-beest 78.5 points per conference game) but have faltered on the defensive end, and rank 10th in the conference in scoring defense during Big Ten play (65.9 PPG). Of course, the Hoosiers have a golden opportunity to make waves on the road this weekend when they head to West Lafayette for a road game against Purdue. The Hoosiers haven’t beaten the Boilermakers since 2008, when the teams met just once — in Bloomington. Indiana hasn’t won at Purdue since 2006, so the odds seem to be remained stack against the Hoosiers this season.
Meanwhile, the Badgers also have a challenge ahead of them to keep their pace. They’ve won six straight since that three-game skid, but have a high-profile meeting against first-place Ohio State this weekend in Madison that is likely the most important conference game to date this season. The credit for the turnaround, oddly, is due not to the Badgers’ best player — point guard Jordan Taylor — but everyone else around him.
Taylor played well in the Badgers’ three conference losses — averaging 19 PPG (almost five full points better than his season average) — but had no supporting cast. Over those three games, Wisconsin had just two players score in double figures, and both performances (Jared Berggren and Josh Gasser had 12 and 11, respectively) came in a 72-65 loss to Iowa on Dec. 31. Over this six-game winning streak, Wisconsin has had 11 double-digit scoring performances from players not named Jordan Taylor. Wisconsin almost certainly won’t keep winning game after game, and the Hoosiers are bound to win a road game. But for now, with these trends, both teams are proving to be almost exactly who we thought they’d be.