In back-to-back late November wins over two-time national runner-up Butler and on the road at North Carolina State, Indiana showed that – unlike the last three years – it is no longer going to be a pushover.
In December victories over No. 1 Kentucky and No. 2 Ohio State, the Hoosiers proved they are capable of beating any team in the nation on their home court.
Sunday’s 88-82 victory over Penn State was another milestone. The Nittany Lions will never be confused with a Big Ten powerhouse (although they were coming off a 20-point mid-week win over Indiana rival, Purdue), but any conference road win for the Hoosier is a big deal.
In the past four years prior to the Penn State triumph, Indiana had one win (and 27 losses) in Big Ten road games under Tom Crean.
“It’s always tough to win on the road in the Big Ten,” said junior point guard Jordy Hulls, who had a game-high 28 points in Sunday’s victory. “It’s definitely a big accomplishment for us.”
What makes the victory relevant is this: if the Hoosier can defend their home court – and they have proven they can, against even the nation’s top teams – and beat the bottom of the Big Ten on the road, they will finish with 25-26 regular-season wins. That should be good enough for a second or third seed in the NCAA Tournament.
For a program desperate to return to the post-season for the first time since 2008, that would be quite an accomplishment.
The next step for Indiana is to beat good Big Ten teams on the road. It will have to do so in order to contend for their 21st Big Ten championship and to earn a possible No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
On Thursday, Indiana hosts Minnesota, which is 0-4 in the Big Ten, before going to Columbus for another bout vs. the No. 5 Buckeyes.
Crean knows winning Big Ten road games won’t be easy.
“This is a tough league,” Crean said. “It’s the No. 1 league in the country for a reason. In this league, you’re going to be tested every night.”
On Sunday, 64 of Indiana’s 88 points were scored by underclassmen. Nearly 82 percent of this year’s Hoosiers’ points have been scored by players who will presumably return next season. Add to that the potential return of a healthy Maurice Creek and one of the top recruiting classes in America, and it won’t be long until Indiana returns to the Indiana of old.
In the meantime, Hoosier fans have something for be really excited about for the first time in a long, long time.