Five games into the season, the 2011-12 Indiana Hoosiers have yet to be challenged.
Four games in Assembly Hall and one at the Ford Center in Evansville have produced five wins by 20 points or more by Indiana. That’s never happened in the history of the program.
Dig into the box scores and you’ll find little to nitpick with the way Tom Crean’s team has dismantled the opposition.
The fouling epidemic, an Achilles’ Heel a season ago, has tempered at least for the time being. The Hoosiers are one of the top shooting teams in the country thanks to unselfish, crisp ball movement and smart shot selection. And there’s an inside scoring threat roaming the paint for IU for the first time since D.J. White’s departure. His name is Cody Zeller and he’s already picked up two Big Ten Freshman of the Week awards.
IU’s 5-0 start feels different than last season, when the Hoosiers didn’t always win convincingly. This year, IU has left little doubt who is the better team. There are high fives, smiles and a cohesiveness present in Assembly Hall that was not visible last winter.
But how much better is this Indiana team?
The answer to that question will begin to take shape in the coming weeks when the competition level increases. Significantly.
For as much credit that was given to teams like Stony Brook and Chattanooga by the preseason prognosticators, the early results don’t bear out those wins to be as impressive as originally believed.
Stony Brook, picked by some to win the America East, followed their loss to Indiana with a win over a Division III team and a road loss to Sacred Heart. And Chattanooga, selected by several publications to win their division in the Southern Conference, followed up a loss at Butler by dropping a home game to Kennesaw State.
The Evansville win is clearly the best of the five and the Purple Aces currently sit at No. 192 in the Sagarin Ratings.
The meat of the non-conference schedule, which will set the early tone for IU’s chances to get back to the NCAA Tournament, tips off Sunday.
And over a span of 20 days, Indiana should learn where it stands in a group of four games.
Butler, the two-time defending national runner-up, is down but capable of defending at a high level. North Carolina State, slated to finish in the bottom third of the ACC, just beat Texas on a neutral court after trailing by 18 in the second half. Kentucky, currently ranked No. 2 in the country, is stocked with talent poised for the NBA. And Notre Dame, led by Tim Abromaitis and Scott Martin, will present a neutral-court challenge and an opportunity to get a win over a Big East team.
These contests will help answer questions that still remain and cannot be answered in a blowout of Gardner-Webb.
Will Indiana crash the glass at a more effective rate than they have to this point? Crean has talked up the importance of rebounding on both ends of the floor and the Hoosiers rank outside of the top 150 nationally in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage.
How will this group respond when it’s knocked back on its heels and is forced to respond with a punch of its own? To this point, Indiana not been faced with that dilemma.
And if Cody Zeller gets into foul trouble, can this group be effective without him for extended minutes? It’s bound to happen at some point.
These are the games in which a win will impress the selection committee come March. They’re also games that Indiana needs to be competitive in if 2011-12 is truly going to be the Hoosiers’ turnaround season.
The Hoosiers made a statement they’re capable of winning on the road with their performance six days ago in Evansville.
The next step — and chance to make another statement — begins Sunday.