Hoosiers positioned well after 1st leg of Big Ten play

It hasn’t happened often for Indiana in recent seasons.

But when it has, a 2-0 start to conference play has proved especially meaningful for the Hoosiers.

Tuesday’s 64-62 victory at Penn State marked the third time since the 2012-13 campaign that IU has opened Big Ten season with a pair of wins. In each of the last two seasons that happened — 2013 and 2016 — the Hoosiers went on to win the league.

There are, of course, 18 more conference games in store for Indiana once Big Ten season returns for good on Jan. 3. In a conference enjoying renewed depth, there are no sure things.

But by grinding out a couple wins during the first leg of league play, IU has a head start on competing in a conference angling itself as the best in the country.

“Once January starts to roll around, you look back on it and say, ‘Man, those things counted just the same as the ones in January and February,'” Indiana coach Archie Miller said. “For us to be able to get our first two was really good, especially the one on the road.”

Indiana isn’t among the seven Big Ten teams ranked inside the Associated Press top 25 this week. Though, perhaps more importantly, it’s one of the five Big Ten squads that have authored 2-0 starts to conference play, joining the likes of No. 5 Michigan, No. 10 Michigan State, No. 12 Wisconsin and No. 19 Ohio State.

The Hoosiers claimed their status through a pair of two-point victories, including last Saturday’s win over Northwestern and Tuesday’s trip to Penn State. For Indiana, those victories marked the first time since Feb. 12 and Feb. 19, 1994, that the program has won back-to-back two-point decisions in league play.

Close games could very likely be the norm for Big Ten teams this season, with the league playing above its preseason projections. Not only are seven teams ranked in the AP poll, eight Big Ten programs — including IU at No. 23 — are featured inside the top 30 of the KenPom.com ratings.

In passing their first two league tests, the Hoosiers are positioned well for what’s to come.

“It’s hard in this league,” Miller said. “If you just watch it right now, it’s gonna be a bear once we get into January and February. For us, we’re happy about it. We have to finish off non-conference right now, then once January rolls around, we’ll get back into it.”

At the same time, Indiana demonstrated in each of the first two league games that it has work to do if it hopes to avoid similarly narrow contests moving forward.

At Penn State, the Hoosiers saw their 11-point lead get whittled down to merely two points in the final four minutes. In an attempt to kill clock, the Hoosiers seemed to take themselves out of any offensive rhythm.

Indiana had as many field goals (11) as turnovers during the final half, and got outscored 10-1 across the final 3:14. As strong as star freshman guard Romeo Langford played while scoring 15 of his 17 points during the first period, he attempted only three shots in the second half — and only one in the final eight minutes.

The Hoosiers are also in need of more production from bouncy sophomore starting forward Justin Smith, who went scoreless in 25 minutes at Penn State. After averaging 15 points across IU’s final four regular season games last season, Smith projected as a much-needed third scoring option entering this season. So far, he’s averaging only five points against IU’s five major-conference opponents to date.

Not to be overlooked, a concerning trend of slow starts is also developing for this IU team.

The Hoosiers found themselves trailing Penn State 9-0 in the first four minutes Tuesday after struggling to develop anything more than a five-point lead against Northwestern on Saturday.

At Duke on Nov. 27, the Blue Devils didn’t relinquish their double-digit lead after going up by 12 points seven minutes into the contest. IU also had to overcome a sluggish start in its win over UC Davis on Nov 23, when the Hoosiers found themselves trailing the Aggies by 14 points midway through the first half.

Still, IU has an overall body of work to feel good about.

The Hoosiers are a last-moment tip-in at Arkansas away from being 8-1 heading into Saturday’s game vs. Louisville at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall.

They’ve held all but one of their opponents (Duke) under a point per possession on the defensive end, while producing an offensive efficiency rating that ranks 36th nationally, per KenPom.com.

As important as anything, Indiana has a two-win cushion in the conference, a crucial mark that bodes well for the Hoosiers’ future.

“Coach said it’s really big,” freshman point guard Rob Phinisee said. “I know the 2-0 start can really help us down the road, so it’s big.”