Raise your hand if you were a bit underwhelmed by Indiana’s non-conference schedule?
Yea, me too, but let’s be honest: After two years November tossing the Hoosiers in well over their heads, and facing as talented a Big Ten as we’ve seen in five years or more, there’s really nothing wrong with taking it a little bit easier before the New Year turns.
Given that IU will still play Kentucky, still has a date in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, (which it had no power in deciding) and will still meet Northern Iowa and, potentially, New Mexico, the pre-Big Ten slate really isn’t as weak as it could be – trust me. To some extent, it probably also looks a lot easier when you consider Indiana’s last two years, with dates against Wake Forest, Notre Dame, Gonzaga and Maryland, among others, on top of the traditional rivalry with the Wildcats.
In truth, it probably still tells us a fair amount about these Hoosiers, who – given their schedule – have more than just an outside shot at postseason basketball for the first time since 2008. No, not the NCAA Tournament, but anything beats staying home, doesn’t it?
Considering its path through the first quarter of the season, there’s ample reason to believe Indiana will be 8-0 when the Hoosiers head to Kentucky on Dec. 11. In fact, it would be rather surprising if Tom Crean’s squad wasn’t 8-0 (certainly nothing below 7-1) on the bus to Lexington.
Which brings me to the primary point of this rambling – can Indiana beat Kentucky at Rupp Arena in mid-December? I’m sure it’s something plenty of you salivate at the thought of. One way or the other, it’s a worthwhile debate to have.
Consider the following:
+ Kentucky loses basically all its experienced leadership and its top four leading scorers from one year ago. More than that, perhaps, with the loss of John Wall, Eric Bledsoe, etc., the Wildcats lose the basis of their team identity, not an easy commodity to replace.
+ Three guesses who Kentucky’s best returning frontcourt player might be. You should only need one guess, since Josh Harrellson is the only possible answer. The senior forward is literally the only forward coming back from last year’s team, and he averaged right at four minutes per game last season. Super freshmen Enes Kanter and Terrence Jones along with JUCO transfer Eloy Vargas will probably be expected to carry most of the load down low for a squad whose official roster only lists four players as forwards. That is a bit deceiving, with the athleticism of taller guards like DeAndre Liggins.
+ Once again, John Calipari will field a team that’s primarily driven by freshmen – albeit, again, impressively gifted freshmen – including the aforementioned Kanter, Brandon Knight, Jones and Stacey Poole. The blessing in that is that Calipari has made a habit of getting the most out of freshmen in recent seasons. (See: John Wall, Demarcus Cousins, Derrick Rose.) The curse is that, unlike last year, Kentucky does not have nearly the clear-cut veteran leadership to guide and back up all that youth. Patrick Patterson, Perry Stevenson, these were guys who brought that kind of experience and guidance. This year, Harrellson also gets the privilege of being the team’s only senior, and the Wildcats only have two juniors that aren’t transferring in this year, as well.
+ We should all have a good idea what Kentucky brings to the table by the time the Hoosiers find Lexington. Calipari and crew open with two rather easy opponents before a trip to the Maui Invitational, and a road date with UNC and a home tilt with Notre Dame stand between the beaches of Hawaii and the bank shots of Verdell Jones. If all those aforementioned freshmen can find their proverbial sea legs quickly, turn out some good early-season results and drum up some confidence, then Kentucky ought to be in a very good frame of mind for their annual rivalry match-up. Stumble early, and it could be a different story.
+ The Hoosiers, by contrast, face no real tests other than a trip to Boston College, where former Cornell coach Steve Donahue has his hands full remaking a program that sort of fell apart a little bit when Al Skinner’s tenure ended rather unceremoniously. The Hoosiers won’t be perhaps as battle-tested as Kentucky, but they also won’t enter the season with nearly as many questions to answer, either, beyond Maurice Creek’s health.
So what do you think? My two cents: I think it’s very possible. Indiana ought to be a very good place when it travels south to Lexington, and frankly, I’m not sure I have as much undeniable faith in this crew of freshmen as I did Kentucky’s last group of college greenhorns.
I would demur from making any sort of firm prediction now, because well, it’s August, and I need at least two months of college football before I even start thinking about other sports. Also, I’m taking the easy way out while Maurice Creek continues to work his way back from a knee injury.
But at the end of the day, I think it’s possible. Do you?