IU eager to test itself vs. Marquette, begin building resume

This is why Evan Fitzner came to Indiana.

The St. Mary’s graduate transfer embarked upon the relocation process this past spring looking to play in big, nationally-relevant games with NCAA Tournament implications — the kind of contest Wednesday’s showdown with No. 24 Marquette appears to be.

“It’s definitely what college basketball is all about,” Fitzner said.

So begins one of the most important weeks of the regular season for Indiana, which hosts the Golden Eagles as part of the Gavitt Games at 8:30, followed by a trip to Arkansas on Sunday afternoon.

The formula for building a strong postseason resume looks like Indiana’s upcoming stretch — made-for-tv matchups like ones for IU against Marquette and Duke, a road trip to Arkansas, a home game against Louisville and a neutral-floor matchup with Butler.

Indiana under Miller is serious about bolstering its resume and testing itself out of conference, and this week will provide two important opportunities to do exactly that.

“Our hope would be at the end of non-conference that everyone looks at us and says, ‘Those guys tried like crazy to build a really tough resume,’ and I think we’ve done that,” Miller said.

Miller, of course, didn’t have much input in Wednesday’s matchup with Marquette. This game was scheduled in conjunction with the Gavitt Games, which pits Big Ten and Big East teams against one another early in the November slate. But taking advantage of these out-of-league matchups is imperative, particularly at home.

Scheduling Arkansas, meanwhile, was all Miller. He wanted a home-and-home series on the books with a power conference opponent. Arkansas, which will host IU this weekend before coming to Bloomington next season, agreed to match up.

“It’s us having to go on the road and get tested,” Miller said. “Then, next season, we have a great opponent in Arkansas coming back to Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall.”

In the short term, both games this week are likely to weigh heavily on Indiana’s NCAA Tournament position come March, with Marquette and Arkansas each shaping up as potential Quadrant 1 opponents for Indiana.

As the NCAA has reassessed its postseason selection criteria in recent seasons, it sorts games based on the opponent’s ranking in the new NCAA Evaluation Tool — known as the NET — which replaces the RPI and relies on results, strength of schedule, game location and the quality of wins and losses, among other factors.

Quadrant 1 games are considered those played on a home court against teams ranked inside the top 30, those played on a neutral floor against top 50 competition and those played in true road environments against top-75 competition.

Although the uptick in competition is steep, it’s also a welcome development for a team eager to build a strong resume and see where it stands.

“We’re going to have to get prepared,” Miller said. “When you look at the remaining month of November, early December with two conference games on the horizon, and the ACC/Big Ten Challenge road game (at Duke) at the end of the month, you’re going to have to test yourself going into those games to know where you’re really at and what you have to improve on, and that’s the good thing. We play against a couple unique styles this week, as well, that will help our guys experience those things down the line.”

First up, Marquette’s high-powered and efficient offense.

The Golden Eagles return the bulk of their key players from last year’s team, which finished the season with the 12th-ranked offensive efficiency rating in the country.

The presence and play of junior guard Markus Howard goes a long way toward that. Howard recently earned his third career Big East Player of the Week honor after averaging 26 points, eight rebounds and six assists across opening-week wins over UMBC and Bethune-Cookman.

Howard, a 45 percent career 3-point shooter, is one of the nation’s elite scorers, and Miller knows he’s in range as soon as he crosses the time line.

“He’s got the ultimate green light,” Miller said. “He’s not going to stop attacking. He’s a 40-minute guy, and you just have to be really tough-minded.

“As we head into this one, all of our perimeter guys are going to have to do a good job, but as a team we’re going to have to really be aware where he’s at and what he’s doing. It’s going to put a lot of responsibility on some young guys in the game.”

Indeed, this week will be a test for the Hoosiers’ youngest players. Indiana is starting two freshmen, guards Rob Phinisee and Romeo Langford, while bringing another, wing Damezi Anderson, off the bench.

After a pair of tune-up games against Chicago State and Montana State last week, this week will measure where that trio stands at this early juncture, while also requiring them to assess their physical well-being and manage their bodies for the challenges that still lay ahead.

“I stress a lot to them, their bodies and how playing a tough schedule and the opponents we do in these next couple weeks affects their bodies and how important (it is to do) treatment, the ice tub and things like that,” junior De’Ron Davis said. “Letting them figure it out is part of college. They’ll figure out how tough these teams are, especially when we get to Big Ten play, and how brutal some teams can be.”

No stranger to big games at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, Davis also provided another fair warning to his younger, newer teammates.

“This place explodes,” Davis said. “This place is going to be loud.”

That’s exactly the kind of early-season, big-game atmosphere Indiana is looking for.