Big Ten road exposes IU's flaws

At the beginning of this month the Indiana basketball program was riding high. The Hoosiers had just defeated No. 2 Wisconsin on their home floor to remain undefeated in Assembly Hall and showed the nation that they could play with, and beat, anyone. It kept alive the Hoosiers undefeated streak at home this season, but it's their 2-7 road record that spells trouble for Sampson's first squad.

At the beginning of this month the Indiana basketball program was riding high. The Hoosiers had just defeated No. 2 Wisconsin on their home floor to remain undefeated in Assembly Hall and had shown the nation that they could play with, and beat, anyone. The Coach Kelvin Sampson love fest was in full swing at IU as the Hoosiers climbed to a season-high 19th in the polls. In just a matter of months Sampson had made the Hoosiers relevant again and he did it his way—with hard-nosed defense and a never-say-die attitude.

Those have long been the traits of any Sampson coached team and his style certainly plays well in Indiana, a state where workaholics frequently have their name chanted and floor burns are given the same full-throated support as three-pointers. Thanks to Sampson's demanding ways the Hoosiers can never be counted out of any game. Their eight losses this season have come by an average of just six points.

But it's the flip side of that coin that could have the Hoosiers leaving the Big Dance before their ready. Their 17 wins this season have come by an average margin of 17 points, so when they win they usually win big. However, the Hoosiers record in games decided by six points or less is just 3-5, showing a troubling trend in close games.

Nowhere has that trend been more obvious than on the road in conference play. Saturday's loss at Michigan was the Hoosiers' fourth consecutive Big Ten road defeat and was another close game that was lost in the final minutes. As March draws near and teams begin to round into tournament form the ratio of close games will increase. The post-season always tests a team's composure in crunch time. Will the Hoosiers be ready?

While the Hoosiers have impressed fans with their tough-nosed defense and tenacious play this year, the Big Ten season is beginning to uncover some major flaws. Indiana has already built a reputation as a team that never gives in, but it's also a team that becomes overwhelmingly average when they don't play with that same edge. It's the Hoosiers gritty, all-out effort that makes them competitive, but when that effort slips the Hoosiers become just another middle-tier Big Ten team. Because of that fact, the Hoosiers have struggled in late-game situations this year. In the final minutes even the most lethargic team can raise their level of intensity and effort, making IU's advantage in that category diminish. In the final minutes the premium is placed on making plays. It's the time when big time players make big time plays.

This Big Ten season has shown us that Indiana isn't a team loaded with big-time players. There's D.J. White…and a slew of role players and youngsters. When White has been stuck on the bench with foul trouble this season the Hoosiers usually find themselves overmatched. With no true, traditional power forward to play alongside White the Hoosiers try instead to get it done with effort guys like Mike White, Xavier Keeling, and Lance Stemler. Many times effort isn't enough to make up the size disadvantages these players face. It's a big problem for the Hoosiers and one that's cost them several games this year. When White is neutralized with foul trouble, the Hoosiers become ordinary, very ordinary, due to their lack of frontline depth.

Luckily, overwhelming hustle and effort can make even an ordinary team a contender. It's what made the Hoosiers a legitimate contender for the Big Ten title midway through this season, but their late-game execution on the road has put them firmly back into the pretender category at this point. Saturday Indiana dropped their fourth straight road game to make them a disappointing 2-7 on the road this season. Most of those games have come down to the final minutes and the Hoosiers haven't been able to answer the challenge.

It's not a new problem. Mike Davis' teams had an atrocious record on the road, one of the biggest reasons D.J. White told Kelvin Sampson on his first day in Bloomington that all he wanted to do was win on the road. So far the Hoosiers haven't been able to do that with any semblance of consistency and time is running out. Eventually, Sampson will get the players and the level of mental toughness instilled in his program to overcome these problems, but if things don't change quickly it looks like a disappointing March could be around the corner.

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