Hoosiers return home in a must-win situation

Parity is defined as equivalence or similarity in status or character.

There’s been a great deal of similarity among men’s basketball teams across the NCAA Division I level. There have been three different No. 1 teams in the nation so far, and there is a potential fourth on the way after Baylor’s loss Tuesday. That same parity only intensifies in Big Ten play.

Close conference matchups create contested and high-energy battles on the hardwood nearly every night, and unfortunately for IU, the Hoosiers have been on the wrong end of three of these battles already. On Tuesday against Maryland IU showed the fight it lacked in previous Big Ten losses by never letting the Terrapins lead by any more than five points in the second half but ultimately couldn’t finish when a potentially buzzer-beating 3-pointer missed.

The Hoosiers still have time to turn around their play in the Big Ten, but it has to start at noon Sunday in a must-win game at home against Rutgers.

“Everybody comes out ready to play right from the start of the game,” freshman guard Devonte Green said about Big Ten play. “Everybody knows everybody when it comes to teams and scouting, so they’re ready for what we have coming for them.”

Podcast: Indiana Daily Sports Basketball | Episode 3

The Scarlet Knights have seen dramatic improvements this season under first-year Coach Steve Pikiell compared to their dismal seven-win season last year. Rutgers won 11 games in nonconference play to start the year but has yet to record its first conference victory, which would match its total from a season ago.

Pikiell has changed the culture in Piscataway, New Jersey, by hammering a defensive mindset into his team. The Scarlet Knights have allowed 16 points fewer per game this season than they did a year ago and rank 66th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom. While they’ve improved on the defensive side, they still boast the lowest-scoring offense in the Big Ten, and that has ultimately led to their recent struggles.

“Rutgers has got a tremendous mindset when they play, I know they’ve lost some games, but what I see on film and what we’ve seen from Steve is that they’re the real deal,” IU Coach Tom Crean said. “There’s no way you get ready for anybody in this league, judging on a record and I hope nobody would think they’re getting ready for us by judging our record right now in the early stages of the Big Ten.”

For the Hoosiers, the offense hasn’t been the root of the issue. The defense has. While IU seemingly got better on the defensive end of the ball during its run to a conference championship in 2016, it has gotten worse since beating North Carolina at the end of November.

In the past five games, IU’s defense has plummeted to 100th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency and is allowing a little more than a point per possession. IU gave up 66 points per game through the first 12 games and has now allowed slightly fewer than 80 points in the past five matchups.

Crean said the main issue for the Hoosiers is the lack of communication and that’s where some of the urgency needs to come from.

“It’s not a strength of anybody right now and we’ve got to continue to work through it,” Crean said about his team’s communication. “Talking is not about just ‘rah-rah’ and yelling and getting in somebody’s face, we don’t have a lot of guys who are like that, talking is reminders. Talking is conversations. We haven’t quite grasped that yet, but I’ve got juniors who haven’t quite grasped that yet too.”

Sunday is a must win for IU, not only because their conference standing is in jeopardy, but also because the road ahead for the Hoosiers looks bleak. After Rutgers, IU will play three of its next four on the road starting at a very improved Penn State, where IU lost one of their three Big Ten games a season ago. IU will then return home to play Michigan State before going away to Michigan and Northwestern.

As much as parity makes college basketball competitive, the Hoosiers showed early this season they have the talent level to put themselves among the elite around the nation. If IU, and its struggling defense, wants to get back to its winning ways, there’s no better time to do it than at Assembly Hall against the lowest scoring offense in the Big Ten.

Think about it this way, the defending Big Ten regular season champions have the possibility to have the same amount of conference wins as a team that won one game in the Big Ten a year ago. That’s concerning to say the least.

“I don’t think we feel like our backs are against the wall,” Blackmon Jr. said. “But we know we gotta turn it up and find our identity and find a way to win.”

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