As nerve-wracking as it may have been to watch, I think Indiana needed to battle for a win today to get things back on track for the rest of Big Ten play.
Sure, the win was against lowly Penn State, who falls to 0-4 in the Big Ten this season, but the Hoosiers actually came into this game as one-point underdogs. Don't pay attention to the records from last season and think that was unfair to the recently struggling Hoosiers. These teams in my eyes have been trending in the opposite direction lately.
The Nittany Lions pose a lineup of five players averaging double-figures in scoring, and with one of the strongest backcourts in the conference with D.J. Newbill and a nearly-healthy Tim Frazier, Penn State was going to put up the points. IU just had to weather the storm.
And it did. Barely.
Of course the first conference win lightens the load for this team, showing them that there is hope to salvage this season. Any road wins this season are going to be tough to come by for IU, as shown this afternoon. The Hoosiers have only played three true road games thus far this season.
At Syracuse in the Big Ten/Challenge, IU fell apart early in the second half and lost 69-52, and against Illinois on New Year's Eve, the Hoosiers had a shot late before falling in overtime. This team now can see that it can, in fact, win away from Assembly Hall, and that confidence will be a huge factor determining IU's post-season fates this year.
But IU also learned today how to pull out a close game. After squeaking out a narrow win against LIU-Brooklyn at home early in the season 73-72, IU lost the next three games it played that were decided by 10 or fewer points – against Connecticut, Notre Dame and Illinois.
It did some good to get a little confidence for the freshmen in the means of playing some easier teams during the non-conference schedule, but this team was nowhere near battle-tested enough for what games would be like in the Big Ten. Yes, I think every game the Hoosiers aren't blown out of this season will be a tough win, home or on the road. Until today, this young squad hadn't seen that it could pull out wins in the waning minutes against a veteran team.
Not too many teams in the Big Ten are going to fall behind 15 points in the first half while it looks like only one player – Noah Vonleh – has any touch on the offensive end, yet still come out with a win. That takes guts, fight and sticking to your game plan. The Hoosiers fell behind early in the second half to Michigan State and out came the 3-pointer prayers and unnecessary jump shots.
We already knew after watching the Syracuse game that this IU team wasn't going to dig itself out of a double-digit hole this season shooting jumpers, but today it kept taking it to the hole, exposing Penn State's foul trouble and getting 35 chances from the free throw line.
With all the ineptness the Hoosiers showed in the opening of Saturday's game, this win has to give them confidence coming back to Bloomington as they prepare to face an undefeated Wisconsin team Tuesday. They now know they can win close games, they can win on the road, they can win in the Big Ten and they can recover from large deficits.
I'm not expecting a win against the Badgers, but I think we'll see a much different IU squad than the one that fell apart against the Spartans a week ago.