Here comes a breather.
After two months, 13 games, 11 wins, five KenPom.com top-50 victories and two conference triumphs, Indiana can take a break.
And feel good while doing so.
The Hoosiers scattered for a brief Christmas vacation not long after Saturday’s 94-64 win over Jacksonville in the non-conference finale, ushering in an 11-day break between games for an IU program that made the most of its early-season slate.
Now comes a time for rest, self-reflection and self-improvement as Indiana bridges the holiday gap into Big Ten season.
“The recovery time is important,” IU coach Archie Miller said. “Getting them home for Christmas is always the goal where they get away from what they’ve been doing. They get a chance to relax a little bit, and then when they come back, you’ve got to ease them into it. But you’ve got to go back to work, and there should be an excitement level when they come back because obviously we’re heading into conference play.”
In the meantime, the Hoosiers can reflect on their first 13 games with a sense of cheer.
IU navigated the first two months short-handed, operating without a full roster for the balance of the schedule. Even so, the Hoosiers authored a 2-0 start to conference play, claiming one of those victories on the road. They can boast of a neutral-court victory over Butler, in addition to two more resume-building wins over Marquette and Louisville at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall.
They all add up for Indiana, forming the foundation of a strong non-conference resume. The Hoosiers are ranked 22nd in the AP poll, slotted at No. 22 in the KenPom.com ratings and rated 18th in the NET rankings, a new analytical tool established by the NCAA to replace the RPI for NCAA Tournament selection purposes.
In capping an undefeated six-game run through December, which included four contests against opponents rated inside the KenPom.com top 50, IU now enjoys a four-game improvement from where it stood through 13 games a season ago.
And, as Inside The Hall notes, this is the first season since the 2013-14 campaign that IU finished non-conference play without a loss to a team rated lower than 100 at KenPom.com.
It’s also the program’s first undefeated December since 2007.
“We’ve seen a lot,” Miller said. “We’ve played good teams. We’ve been on the road (for) three true road games, a neutral game. It hasn’t been like we’ve been in Assembly the entire non-conference slate. We’ve played games that have been grinders. We’ve played some games that have required us to make comebacks. I think there’s a resiliency about the group.
“Our returning guys I feel are playing pretty hard right now. I think our young guys have surprised me that they’ve been able to be incorporated in there and — not that they don’t make mistakes, but they’ve been able to be tough-minded in pressure situations really on both ends of the floor.”
It all sounds good, and it should. Indiana is well on its way to ending its two-year NCAA Tournament drought.
At the same time, Miller is far from satisfied.
Through a product of injuries and youth, Indiana’s offensive approach has been a bit jumbled. Reflecting upon the first two months, Miller laments the turnovers, the streaky shooting and the disjointed segments that have appeared throughout the early-season contests.
Never mind that IU ranks second nationally in team field goal percentage (52.9 percent) and 34th in offensive efficiency. From his view, Miller sees a team that has yet to hit its stride offensively.
“This team has underachieved, in my opinion, offensively, regardless of our numbers, regardless of how many points we score,” Miller said. “Our execution, our taking care of the ball, our style of play that we’re trying to play hits a lot of speed bumps, a lot of road bumps, and that’s been the one thing that’s been not just frustrating but perplexing.
“We haven’t been able to put a game together where we’re fluid on offense. We make bonehead mistakes. We miss free throws. We just haven’t put it together offensively where we’ve been really fluid, and that’s going to be a search because once you get to Big Ten play, the easy ones go away, and you have to play in the half court, and you have to execute and you have to be able to not turn it over on the road.”
Those are valid concerns from IU’s coach, particularly given what awaits the Hoosiers in January. The second leg of Big Ten play features a road-heavy docket for Indiana, which will play six of its first nine games of the new year away from Bloomington.
Of those six road trips, five come against teams (No. 4 Michigan, No. 32 Maryland, No. 19 Purdue, No. 45 Northwestern and No. 6 Michigan State) currently rated inside the KenPom top 50. Even for an IU team that has acquitted itself well to handling close contests, the tight margin for error those games will provide is something Miller must consider.
“There’s going to be some real grinder games coming up where we’re going to need our offense to raise its level,” Miller said.
The flip side, of course, is that an Indiana team aiming to peak in March will play six of its final nine Big Ten games at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall. So there are ample opportunities to grow and establish the fluidity that Miller hopes will carry the Hoosiers deep into March.
The Hoosiers haven’t been perfect, but they’ve been very good. When they return to Bloomington for a post-Christmas team practice on Thursday, they’ll take the next steps toward meeting Miller’s expectations.
In the meantime, Indiana has earned at least some sense of accomplishment — and a break to go with it.
“Our non-conference résumé is done,” Miller said. “We’ve gotten through it. A lot of ups and downs. Now, as we press forward after break, we’ll get ready for the Big Ten gauntlet. … Us coming back from Christmas having an opportunity to work and prepare and play against one another and hopefully have consistent practices will maybe make us a little bit more in tune with the start of Big Ten play.”