IU men’s basketball is a NCAA tournament team at the moment.
According to Thursday’s ESPN Bracketology, the Hoosiers are slotted as a nine seed. The triple-overtime win against Penn State on Wednesday night brought IU back to .500 in conference play and kept the fan base from calling for IU Coach Tom Crean’s job. However, the upcoming three-game slate will be a major challenge for the Hoosiers.
IU will face two teams that have already beaten it soundly this season in addition to in-state rival Purdue. While one play could have decided the game against Penn State, IU was able to escape with a win. Now the Hoosiers have to use that momentum to try to knock off the No. 10 Wisconsin Badgers at 1 p.m. Sunday in Madison, Wisconsin.
“I was thinking of that to be honest with you,” Crean said after the Penn State game. “And it’s like just looking back at those guys, continuing to fight through it, no question they get better from that. No question.”
It’s going to take more than momentum for the Hoosiers to go into Madison and knock off the Badgers. The last time the two met in early January, the Hoosiers were reeling after losing two in a row and found themselves in a 13-0 hole against the Badgers in the first three minutes of the game.
The biggest battle Sunday will be down low with sophomore forward Thomas Bryant going up against Wisconsin sophomore Ethan Happ. Bryant has stepped up the past two games in the absence of junior guard James Blackmon Jr. Bryant tied his career-high in points against Northwestern and put up a new career-high with 31 against Penn State.
Last time these two teams squared off Happ put up 19 points to Bryant’s six, and the Wisconsin big man hasn’t slowed down since. He’s averaging nearly a double-double per game and was named Big Ten player of the week the last two weeks.
“In the first meeting with them, I don’t think we executed the gameplan like we could have. That will be another step in the maturity process for us,” sophomore forward Juwan Morgan said. “They play through their best players all the time. They are really good at seeing the weak side and making passes out of the post and playing without the ball.”
Three-point defense and turnovers plagued the Hoosiers against the Badgers in their first matchup, and those two phases of the game are still a big issue for them. Wisconsin shot 50 percent from beyond the arc in the first matchup while forcing 13 IU turnovers and turning them into 23 points.
The Hoosiers tend to over-help on defense, and if the opposing offense sets a high-ball screen and moves the ball quickly around the arc, that usually leads to one player being open for a 3-pointer. In the past two matchups opponents are hitting 38 percent from beyond the arc against IU, and Wisconsin is shooting 35 percent from downtown this season.
Turnovers have hurt the Hoosiers lately, and against the Nittany Lions they were able to escape with a win even after giving the ball up 23 times. In the past three games combined, IU has allowed 74 points from 52 turnovers.
“We have to do a really good job of taking care of the basketball,” associate head coach Tim Buckley said. “Defensively, we have to make it difficult for them to score and not allow them to get the ball inside and around the basket. We just have to do a lot more battling in that regard to keep them from getting easy shots.”
On Wednesday night, the positives were able to outweigh the negatives enough to give the Hoosiers a boost moving forward. A win against Wisconsin on Sunday would be an important addition to the Hoosiers’ NCAA tournament résumé moving forward.
“I don’t think anybody’s going to walk out of there and feel, is going to have a big head because we played so great,” Crean said. “But we did have 66 points in the paint. Those were some good things there. We did a lot of good things. But we’ve got to get better and being able to battle through something like that helps them understand they can do it again if need be.”