Even after a concerning home loss to Wisconsin last week, IU could be forgiven for feeling pretty good about where they’re at halfway through the season. At 16-2, the team’s only other misstep was against a surging Butler team that’s now No. 9 in the nation. With a 3-0 record on the road in the Big Ten, the Hoosiers have already matched the total number of away victories they managed all last year in the conference. Sure, they’ve slipped from a preseason No. 1 ranking to No. 7, but for much of the year, they've led the nation in a number of important categories: points scored, free throws made, and almost certainly highlight dunks (thank you, Victor Oladipo).
So why do fans seem so worried? Because IU has shown vulnerabilities that typically keep teams from winning championships. First and foremost, the depth the Hoosiers were supposed to enjoy has proven to be rather shallow. "The Movement" of star recruits has only produced one difference maker, and that’s Yogi Ferrell (who himself is only averaging a little more than 6 points a game). High hopes for freshman-year contributions from Hanner Mosquera-Perea (who looks scared every time he takes the court), Jeremy Hollowell (who has a fondness for turnovers), and Peter Jurkin (who never plays at all) now appear quixotic. Add to that the injuries that have plagued Maurice Creek and Derek Elston, and you really have a six-man roster: The five starters and Will Sheehey.
Secondly, opponents have started to identify IU’s one-dimensional players and schemes. If you can keep Jordan Hulls from shooting 3s, it’s pretty clear he’s not going to hurt you any other way. If you can slow the game down and keep the Hoosiers from racing up and down the court in transition (thrilling to watch), then coach Tom Crean’s players often appear lost in the half-court game (especially against a 1-3-1 defense).
Finally, the schedule gets a lot worse from here. As much as the team must have enjoyed playing Big Ten bottom-dwellers like Northwestern and Penn State early in the year, now they face a late-season gauntlet: No. 13 Michigan State on Jan. 27, No. 2 Michigan on Feb. 2, No. 14 Ohio State on Feb. 10, Michigan State again on Feb. 19, No. 12 Minnesota on Feb. 26, and a brutal game at Michigan to end the season on March 10.
As my colleague, The Naysayer, says, the Hoosiers are going to rack up six or seven losses. But there are encouraging signs, too. Cody Zeller, who seemed content to get his quiet 15 points a game early on has started to assert himself more. Christian Watford, who has played pretty soft for a 6’9” power forward in years past, has started to take the ball to the rim in recent games. And Victor Oladipo has become IU’s most-loved player since A.J. Moye.
Cohesiveness, which was in such abundance last year but has often been mysteriously missing this season, will determine if the Hoosiers live up to expectations in March. Raw talent, as IU has already seen, won't be enough.