Confident scheduling? A look at IU’s struggles against high major non-conference opponents

  • 12/15/2023 7:45 am in

A good but unranked Auburn team overwhelmed Indiana last Saturday. It wasn’t even close after the first 10 minutes; the Hoosiers fell 104-76 in Atlanta.

In the grand scheme, one neutral site game in early December shouldn’t define Indiana’s season or Mike Woodson’s tenure in Bloomington. Still, it was a microcosm of the Hoosiers’ struggles against high major non-conference opponents the past three seasons.

Indiana has played 12 games against non-conference power six opponents (including St. Mary’s in the 2022 NCAA tournament) since the start of the 2021-22 season. The Hoosiers have won five of those by a combined 32 points and lost seven of them by a combined 131 points, making the Hoosiers -99 in those 12 games.

Here’s a list of teams Indiana beat in that stretch:

  • St. John’s in Bloomington — a team that finished 17-15 with no NCAA bid
  • Notre Dame in the Crossroads Classic final installment — the Fighting Irish finished with a 24-11 record, losing in the second round of the NCAA tournament
  • At Xavier — easily the best non-conference win of Woodson’s tenure, the Musketeers were a No. 3-seed in March and made the Sweet Sixteen last season
  • North Carolina in Bloomington — The Tar Heels were the preseason title favorites and did not make the NCAA tournament
  • Louisville in the Empire Classic — Louisville is one of the worst high-major programs currently

The win at Xavier in the Gavitt Games stands out from that list, and the Notre Dame win two years ago came against a Mike Brey team that ended up figuring it out in conference play. However, there’s just not a lot that stands out otherwise.

It’s been a point of emphasis for Woodson to make Indiana relevant on the national stage, and scheduling these games early in the season is a good way of doing that. But the Hoosiers have not been beneficiaries of that at all. This season, KenPom ranks IU’s non-conference schedule as the 167th-hardest in the country.

This trend has been a difficult pill for fans to swallow. It’s nice to have big games and be on national television. It’s good for the Indiana basketball brand and the hopes of that brand returning to consistent national prominence. Woodson should be credited for ambitious scheduling. But is it worth it if the results aren’t wins but blowout losses?

It’s hard to conceptualize how far Indiana actually fell a few years ago under Archie Miller. The term “rock bottom” is thrown around loosely, nevertheless, the Hoosiers were nearing it. There’s no question that Indiana has progressed with back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances for the first since 2015-16. But, Indiana still has a ways to go if it wants reach national prominence again.

After Indiana’s loss to Auburn, Woodson said his team didn’t fight.

“We just caved in,” he said postgame. “And that’s something we’ve gotta get better at in that area…you’re up 12, you can’t have a lopsided game like that. That’s kinda on me.”

Toughness was emphasized in this week of practice Indiana has had between games.

“It’s okay to be nasty sometimes,” Woodson said during his radio show on Monday.

“My job is to get them over the hump and understand when you get in a game where it’s a slugfest, you have to keep fighting.”

The reality is that this Indiana team has ten new faces and is 7-2 and 2-0 in the Big Ten. At face value, that’s a good spot for Indiana to be at in mid-December — especially without its starting point guard, Xavier Johnson, for the last several games.

There are reasons Indiana has struggled in these games. Themes like the lack of physicality and athleticism are at the top of the list. But this Hoosiers squad is still going through the process of finding its identity and despite the non-conference embarrassments, it’s okay to be patient. IU still has a long way to go.

Tomorrow, Indiana plays No. 2 Kansas, a team that beat IU by 22 points in Lawrence last season. A raucous Assembly Hall will give the Hoosiers a sense of comfort, but the difference in talent may be difficult for Woodson’s ball club to overcome.

The Hoosiers have lost its two big non-conference games — UConn and Auburn — by a combined 48 points this season and Indiana needs a big high-major win, badly. Will Indiana’s struggles against marquee non-conference competition continue? Or will tomorrow be a turning point?

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