The Hoosiers will travel to Evanston, Ill., Saturday with hopes of earning a payback victory against a Northwestern team that forced the first domino to fall for IU in its string of recent struggles.
Four days after the Hoosiers knocked off No. 3 Wisconsin at home, the lowly 8-10 Wildcats took all of the wind out of IU’s sails with a 54-47 victory at Assembly Hall.
Since defeating the Badgers, IU has lost six of its last eight games, fallen off the NCAA Tournament radar, had a player arrested for operating a vehicle while intoxicated and had its home temporarily jeopardized by a piece of metal plating.
Starting at 8:15 p.m. Saturday, the Hoosiers have an opportunity to make amends and climb up the Big Ten standings.
Northwestern, which is on a four-game losing streak, is ninth in the conference, one place ahead of IU.
The Jan. 18 meeting between the teams was a defensive struggle, with 101 total points scored on a combined 34-of-111 shooting performance. IU shot 4-of-18 from 3-point range.
“No question, when you don’t have as many outside shooters, the defense dictates so much of how the offense is going to look,” IU Coach Tom Crean said on Monday’s Big Ten coaches teleconference.
The Wildcats came into Assembly Hall and controlled the pace of the game, limiting IU to only four fast-break points.
Northwestern, the worst team in the Big Ten in rebound margin, held IU to a one-rebound advantage on the boards.
Despite freshman forward Noah Vonleh’s 17-point, 12-rebound performance, Crean said Vonleh isn’t as aggressive as he needs to be with the ball.
“Some of that is the offensive rebounding, some of that is taking advantage of driving opportunities when they’re there, some of that is being ready to shoot, some of that is not looking to pass the ball as soon as he catches it,” Crean said.
The Hoosiers have the opportunity to set the tone in Welsh-Ryan Arena. Through Wednesday, IU is 62nd in the country in adjusted tempo, according to kenpom.com. The Wildcats are the 334th-slowest team in the nation.
Crean said defenses can’t dictate how the Hoosiers move on offense.
“A person in movement has constantly got to be trying to create a look, trying to create an opportunity for someone else,” he said. “That’s why transition is good for us. That’s why transition pick and rolls are good for us because the game’s in movement and the defense isn’t set yet.”
IU will have a clear advantage if it turns Saturday’s matchup into a track meet, because of its depth. Ten Hoosiers played against Northwestern in January.
Northwestern Coach Chris Collins used an eight-man rotation against IU, but only six Wildcats played significant minutes.
Senior guard James Montgomery III played less than a minute and senior forward Nikola Cerina, who played four minutes at Assembly Hall, is suspended for Saturday’s game after throwing a punch against Ohio State Wednesday.
At IU’s press conference Tuesday, after the IU vs. Iowa game was postponed after a metal plating fell from Assembly Hall’s ceiling, Crean said the team was ready to play but the Hoosiers would have to adjust to the schedule change.
“It’s all part of resiliency, you just get ready to go do what you have to do when it’s time to do it,” Crean said.
It has been nearly three weeks since IU’s last win and only six regular season games remain for the Hoosiers. If IU is going to make a run towards an NCAA Tournament berth in the home stretch, the time is now.
Follow reporter Andy Wittry on Twitter @AndyWittry.