There’s a new normal for IU basketball in Big Ten play.
During the non-conference season our games were marked by slow starts, big leads, extensions of those leads, wins.
But conference play has been a horse of a different color. Our starts have been much stronger, our leads not as big, and no extensions. We’re still getting the wins (mostly), but the phrase, “going away” doesn’t really enter into the game recap.
The simple reason for this is that Big Ten competition is better. Three of our four conference wins are on the road against teams not likely to roll over and give up. And the fourth was against a Top Ten ranked team.
A more complicated set of reasons is at work here as well.
The first is that our bench is much more shallow than it was early, or than we thought it was early. As previously discussed, Will has been much less present of late, Remy’s play has declined. Austin, Derek, and Mo have been injured. Peter is far too raw to see the court, Jeremy is all upside and Hanner has more than a long way to go to reach the high school hype.
This leaves us with a starting five where one guy, Christian, has been playing better of late but is about as consistent as an episode of SNL. For every good sketch you get at least one stinker, maybe more. Another guy, Jordan, whose primary benefit to this team is his shooting, who has been having real trouble getting his shot off, and even more trouble making free throws (though it should be noted that he scored 15 points yesterday on 50% shooting). A freshman who is playing well, but who is learning what a Big Ten game is like the hard way, plus it’s not his job to score. And two guys, Victor and Cody, who get it done night after night, but who we all think should be giving us more, fair or unfair.
There’s also the very real problem of how we handle pressure defense. Yesterday at Northwestern gave reason for optimism, in that when they switched to the 1-3-1, we had real trouble getting the ball where we wanted it and getting the shots we wanted, but we took care of the ball, only turning it over six times. But that defense gave us real problems and it was during that stretch that Northwestern made their run.
All of that is true. And we’re still 4-1 with 3 road victories. And something strange has happened to my rooting interests in other conference games. I usually pull teams to win at home, as this maintains a type of status quo that would make everyone .500 and put us out in front, but now that we’ve lost at home, I find myself rooting for the other top teams in the conference to take at least one home loss. I feel like this will help balance the scales for us a bit and make up for our loss to Wisconsin.
Based on how things have gone thus far, I feel pretty safe in saying no one is winning the Big Ten with fewer than four losses, maybe even five. The teams are just too good and the road venues just too tough to imagine anyone getting through with three losses.
So buckle up kids. The soft part of our schedule is coming to a close. After the Penn State game on Wednesday we’ve got Michigan State, @Purdue, Michigan, @Illinois, @Ohio State before we get our crack at Nebraska at home. And if the new normal is good starts and having to hang on for victories, we’re going to come thorough that stretch with more good results than bad, but it’s not going to be easy.
And that’s going to start to feel very normal.