Everybody expected the Badgers to be there, but the Hoosiers? Not a chance.
Indiana was team turmoil coming out of the offseason. Plus IU was too small and that lack of size would make things tough on the Hoosiers when it had to face the rigors of an 18-game Big Ten schedule.
A record of 15-4 through the first 19 games? Really?
A preseason poll of the Big Ten writers had the Hoosiers finishing ninth. It’s safe to say that anyone that picked IU to finish ninth overall in the Big Ten was pretty sure that Indiana wouldn’t be tied for first place a third of the way through the conference season.
So that much has been established. No one expected the Hoosiers to be in this situation.
Now the challenge is staying there.
It won’t be easy, especially with three of the next four games on the road at Ohio State (Sunday), Purdue (Wednesday) and then Wisconsin on Feb. 3. The other game is a home contest with Rutgers on Jan. 31.
But here’s the thing. The Big Ten is beginning break into tiers. And if the Hoosiers want to stay in that upper tier, they need to find a way to win one of these next three road games.
Why is that so important? Here are my thoughts there.
When you look at IU’s final eight games in conference play, which begins the game after Wisconsin, IU will have a string of games where it should be a strong favorite to win.
If Indiana can get a little separation here, it will provide them with a little bit of a margin of error coming down the stretch.
Also consider this: If IU found a way to just split its next two games with Ohio State and Purdue, at the very least it would remain in the upper tier of the Big Ten with Wisconsin and Maryland. If IU could get a split in the next two, it would be 6-2 in conference play. As of today, 11 of the 14 Big Ten teams have at least three losses.
So getting a split in these next two games would be huge.
It won’t be easy. Ohio State is looking for revenge from IU’s 69-66 win on Jan. 10, and Purdue will be looking for a statement game against a good IU team. And Purdue brings all kinds of matchup problems.
But some way, somehow, if IU could come out of these next two games at 6-2 in the Big Ten the chances of this team staying in the upper tier of the Big Ten long term will be really good. And Selection Sunday will be a much more enjoyable experience for IU basketball fans.
The Hoosiers may be fine without a win, too, depending on how strong they are able to finish.
But again, this is about giving the program a little cushion and a chance to widen the margin of error moving forward.
No one expected Indiana to be in this position. And now the challenge is keeping it that way.