Northwestern perfect test for IU right nowAfter a disappointing, but perhaps not surprising loss at Michigan, the Hoosiers return to the friendly confines of Assembly Hall Saturday against Northwestern. Besides the fact they have played their best basketball at home this season, the Hoosiers will also benefit from having a week to prepare while Northwestern will come in on a quick turnaround from a physical Iowa game Thursday night. As far as the setting goes, Indiana couldn't hope for much better.
However, the Wildcats exposed the Hoosier defense in Evanston a month ago in a lopsided 93-81 loss that never seemed as close as the final score indicates. After that game Coach Tom Crean lamented his team's lack of communication and the fact that everyone seemed to be operating on a different page. It's why Northwestern was able to so easily carve up the Hoosiers with ball screens, backdoor cuts, and basic ball movement and penetration. They will provide the same challenge to the Hoosiers this weekend and Crean has to be anxious to see if his team has learned from their past.
The test comes at an interesting time for the Hoosiers, who saw their defensive progress over the last three weeks backslide at Michigan. IU's wins over Illinois and Minnesota were spearheaded by terrific defensive efforts as they held those two teams to just 106 combined points. After tough, but highly competitive games against Iowa and Purdue, the Hoosiers just fell flat against Michigan. The Hoosiers didn't totally let the Wolverines go wild offensively, but that had more to do with Michigan's own shortcomings than anything the Hoosiers did defensively. Michigan didn't play terrifically well, but still cruised to a 22 point lead in the second half. Afterwards Crean made subtle and not so subtle hints at his team's toughness and desire saying that Wolverine leading scorer Tim Hardaway, Jr. "punked" his team and that the Hoosiers better learn to play with "their hair on fire" if they want to win in the Big Ten. It was clear that wasn't the case for most of the game at Ann Arbor.
Whether the Hoosiers will rebound at home this Saturday has as much to do with how they communicate and play together defensively as it does with anything else. In their stirring Big Ten home victories this season IU has swarmed opponents defensively, doubled in the post well, and always challenged outside shots. That comes down to communication and having each other's backs. Northwestern and Coach Bill Carmody know as well as any team in the league how to expose a team that doesn't do those things as they thrive off defensive lapses. Saturday's game offers the Hoosiers a chance to show that last Saturday's loss was an aberration and not a return to bad habits.
Perea holds the key?Saturday also provides a sneak peak at IU's future. At 3 p.m. at Bloomington South High School 2012 Hoosier commit Hanner Perea and his La Lumiere team will take on the Panthers in a very intriguing showdown. La Lumiere is currently riding a 13-game winning streak thanks in no small part to the No. 4 ranked power forward in his class in Perea. The 6-foot-8 junior is known for his ultra-athleticism, rebounding, defense, and assaults on the rim, but is still rounding out the rest of his game.
While he's still developing, there's no denying his gifts, which hold a lot of intrigue for Hoosier fans. It's been ages since the Hoosiers had a dominating inside presence defensively and on the glass, a real enforcer type. More importantly, when the five-star Perea arrives in 2012 he could provide the perfect relief for Cody Zeller, who is admittedly much more of a finesse player than Perea. A frontcourt tandem of Zeller and Perea could be the winning combination for the Hoosiers in 2012, giving their talented backcourt all the support they need in the paint. That's still two years away, but fans can get a great look at Perea's development this Saturday.
Rounding third and heading for homeJust five games remain in the Hoosiers regular season with Indiana needing to win four of those to finish above .500 for the first time in the Tom Crean era. With Purdue, Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Illinois closing out the schedule, that's obviously not very likely. But what can we expect from these Hoosiers down the stretch?
Their trip to Ohio State seems to be the only game in which they will be a major underdog. A not-so distant second would be their home game against Wisconsin, but Indiana did give the Badgers all they could handle at the nearly unconquerable Kohl Center earlier this season. The Hoosiers also gave Purdue enough of a fight without Christian Watford last week to make any reasonable person think that next week's game in a raucous Assembly Hall could be interesting. This Saturday's game against Northwestern is certainly winnable and given the media circus surrounding Illinois right now and their erratic play anything could happen in the season finale at Champaign.
It still says here, though, that winning two of the remaining five games would qualify as a good finish for the Hoosiers, who just aren't yet strong enough to battle teams fighting hard for a NCAA tournament berth/higher seed. We say the Hoosiers nip Northwestern at home, lose a close battle to Purdue at home, get handled at Ohio State and at home against surging Wisconsin, and then steal a win at Illinois against a reeling Illini team in freefall.