Before the Harbaugh brothers kick it off in the Super Bowl, the Harbaugh sister gets a little bit of the national spotlight on Saturday night. Joanie Harbaugh is married to Tom Crean, the head basketball coach at Indiana, and the third-ranked Hoosiers will host #1 Michigan in a battle atop the Big Ten in prime time (9 PM ET, ESPN). My guess is that Joanie will get more camera time than normal on this weekend. Here at TheSportsNotebook we’re going to take a deeper look at Indiana basketball, and see if Crean can continue this extended family’s amazing coaching run.
Indiana is built around the talents of sophomore center Cody Zeller. The 7-footer averages 16 points/8 rebounds per game. If you think you’re going to collapse down on him defensively, think again. There are three-point shooter arrayed about, starting with senior point guard Jordan Hulls who hits a sizzling 48 percent from behind the arc. Christian Watford is a forward who can both rebound, as well as step out and hit from downtown. Victor Oladipo shoots the trey more selectively, but he can still bury it if a defender decides to sag off and stop his great skill in going off the dribble. Then you can mix in freshman guard Yogi Ferrell and junior forward Will Sheehey, and there’s really no way Indiana can’t beat you on the offensive end.
But a program whose greatest moments came under Bob Knight surely understands the importance of defense, and here is where some red flags have to go up. There are four signature games Indiana has played so far—wins over Minnesota and Michigan State, along with losses to Butler and Wisconsin. The common trend is that all four opponents have shot 45 percent or better from the floor. Indiana was able to get the two wins, plus take Butler to overtime because they enjoyed pronounced advantages in getting to the free throw line. When the free-throw scoring edge disappeared against Wisconsin, the Hoosiers lost a not-as-close-as-it-sounds 64-59 decision on their home floor.
Is it really a sign of impending greatness when your formula against good times seems to rely on shooting twice as many free throws? You can argue that this will sustain itself—to go back to the Knight era, Indiana usually enjoyed big edges at the charity stripe under the legendary coach. But the free throw advantage has been evident in home games, and the one case it wasn’t—Wisconsin—was against a team that played a disciplined style, not conducive to drawing fouls against.
Thus, am I being unreasonable in suggesting that Indiana hasn’t done anything to suggest they could win a sequence of games against highly ranked, well-coached teams on a neutral floor—which is kind of the definition of what winning the NCAA Tournament requires? I don’t think I am.
Lest Indiana fans think I’m being too tough, let me bring out a few other points. The first and most obvious is this—they’re 19-2, and I do think it would be unreasonable to expect any better. My concern is more in what I see as some underlying problems. Indiana’s toughest games are also ahead of them. After Saturday night, they go immediately to Illinois and Ohio State. Further down the line, there are road games with Michigan State and Minnesota and a season finale in Ann Arbor. If Indiana wins more of these than they lose, than the questions are answered.
I opened the season with grave doubts about Indiana as the #1 team in the country. I thought they were good and I still think they’re good. They’ve shown a consistency that at least suggests they could make a Final Four run if they get a little break in the bracket along the way. But if you want to say they’re a top-level team that could win 2-3 games in a row against the national elite on a neutral floor, I’m not seeing any evidence of that. Maybe I will in the month of February, but the Hoosiers aren’t there yet.
MICHIGAN PROVES ITSELF
At the start of the season I also had doubts about Michigan as a top-level team. Those doubts are gone now. Michigan’s got a much more impressive resume of wins than does Indiana—beating N.C. State, Pitt and Kansas State in non-conference, getting a big conference road win at Minnesota and the Wolverines’ one loss was a good road game at Ohio State. I’m not saying this means Michigan will win on Saturday night—frankly, I don’t expect them to. But we know UM can play well on the road and I would expect them to be in position to play for the Big Ten title in that season finale at home against Indiana.
My doubts about Michigan were rooted in wondering if freshman forward Glenn Robinson III would be up to speed immediately—I know it happens a lot in college ball these days, but I don’t know that we should assume it. And an even bigger doubt was the lack of proven three-point shooting. Robinson is averaging 12 points/6 rebounds a game, and the veteran guards, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Trey Burke have stepped it up from behind the arc. Hardaway is hitting 41 percent, Burke’s hitting 37 percent and the Wolverines still have the ability to beat you off the dribble. The question marks are now exclamation points.