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Hoosiers banking on small lineup to pay Big Ten dividends

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Indiana surges late to top No. 4 Iowa (1:06)

Indiana defeats No. 4 Iowa 85-78 to break the Hawkeyes' three-game winning streak. (1:06)

It’s OK to feel conflicted about Indiana.

Truth is, even this late in the season, the Hoosiers might still be figuring it all out themselves.

How else can you explain a team that dominates Michigan in Ann Arbor, then inexplicably loses at Penn State? A team that can jump on top of fourth-ranked Iowa by 16 in the first half only to watch the Hawkeyes score on 13 consecutive possessions and rally to take the lead in the second?

It has helped make the Hoosiers' offense one of the nation's most efficient. (They rank 16th in adjusted offense, according to Ken Pomeroy.) But they’re not exactly a team that comes to mind when the phrase "lockdown defense" is thrown about.

The Hoosiers can be a spurt away from winning or losing just about any game.

Indiana has had runs of 10 or more points in eight of its 12 Big Ten games, including Thursday night’s 85-78 victory over Iowa.

Indiana, which moved to 14-0 in Assembly Hall, had a pair of 9-0 runs in the first half to help it build a 16-point lead. After squandering that cushion, the Hoosiers regained the lead for good in the second half with a 14-2 spurt after trailing by four.

With the way they can space the floor and score from just about every position, they’re capable of an offensive outburst against anyone.

Indiana starts a pair of 6-foot-7 wings in Troy Williams and Collin Hartman and are generally undersized despite the presence of 6-foot-10 freshman center Thomas Bryant. It hasn’t hurt them on the boards. Indiana has outrebounded every opponent with the exception of Wake Forest and Duke, and it tied Wisconsin in their first meeting.

Many times, the smaller lineup translates to the Hoosiers having an advantage offensively, as both Williams and Hartman have small forward skills and can end up with a power forward defending them.

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery told reporters after the game that’s partly why Indiana keeps defenses under constant pressure. Indiana's decisive run against the Hawkeyes came after Bryant picked up his fourth foul and 6-foot-8 forward Max Bielfeldt came in to play center.

“They’ve got speed, they’ve got post-up guys, they’ve got 3-point shooters, they’ve got drivers,” McCaffery said. “They’re going to spread you out so you’ve got to be locked in five as one.”

In the event of a breakdown, the Hoosiers are ready to exploit it.

  • Michigan fell victim to a 28-0 run in the Hoosiers’ 80-67 win on Feb. 2.

  • Illinois suffered a 20-4 run in the Hoosiers’ 103-69 rout on Jan. 19.

  • In the Hoosiers' turning-point victory over Notre Dame on Dec. 19, it was a 17-2 run that powered an 80-73 triumph that helped erase the lingering disappointment from losses in the Maui Invitational that cast a cloud over nonconference play.

  • The Hoosiers even ran off 12 straight early on against Duke before the Blue Devils came back and obliterated them in Cameron Indoor Stadium 94-74 on Dec. 2.

That’s the thing with Indiana. As close as it is at any moment from going off offensively, it’s equally prone to giving it right back.

With an undersized lineup, the Hoosiers generally stay vulnerable to opponents with a strong post presence. That showed early in the season in losses to Wake Forest and UNLV, when Indiana was outscored by 20 and 10 points, respectively, in the paint.

See the dilemma here? That’s one of the reasons why the Hoosiers are so hard to fully trust.

The Hoosiers pulled into a three-way tie for first place in the Big Ten with Maryland and the Hawkeyes. Iowa might still be the favorite based on its schedule alone.

The Hawkeyes' closing dates include bottom-tier teams Penn State and Minnesota, the latter yet to win a league game; and three middle-of-the-pack opponents in Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan. Of those teams, only the Wolverines are projected as NCAA tournament-bound in Joe Lunardi’s latest Bracketology.

The Terrapins still have trips to Purdue and to Indiana, but have a similar mix of games in which they should be favored, including a matchup against Illinois.

Indiana has games four games left against the best teams in the conference, starting with Sunday’s road trip to Michigan State. There’s a date with rival Purdue, the return game at Iowa and the regular-season finale against Maryland.

Only after the Hoosiers complete that gauntlet will we know if their smaller lineup is big enough to wear the league crown.