As the IU men’s basketball team closed out a gritty road win over Penn State on Tuesday, there was a collective sigh of relief throughout Bloomington.
For the second straight game, the Hoosiers came close to falling to one of the Big Ten’s middling programs. But again, Archie Miller’s squad gutted out the victory.
The past week’s wins over Northwestern and the Nittany Lions were far from reassuring. But now sitting at 7-2, the staunch reality of the Big Ten slate and a nonconference schedule that does IU no favors presents this team with a month-long stretch when victory is mandatory.
Earlier this season, freshman phenom guard Romeo Langford was asked about the season’s expectations. His answer certainly excited the fan base.
“My expectation is to win a National Championship,” freshman guard Romeo Langford said at IU Media Day in September. “I don't go into any season just trying to win a couple games. I go in trying to win the whole entire championship.”
But to back up Langford’s comments, the Hoosiers’ must go undefeated over those aforementioned five games.
Starting with the University of Louisville and Butler University, the next week is a stiff task in itself. The Cardinals come to Bloomington on Saturday with wins over Michigan State University and Seton Hall University in tow. A near miss against Marquette University also highlights their early season agenda.
Chris Mack is still in his first year at the helm, but his team is a tough out any given night.
“We'll have one of the most challenging schedules in all of college basketball,” Mack said at ACC Media Day. “But history will show the Selection Committee favors those teams that go out and aren't afraid to play anybody. So no one's going to accuse us of being afraid to play anybody, and I wouldn't have it any other way.”
Seven days later, the Hoosiers head to Indianapolis for a mid-afternoon test against Butler. The Bulldogs are not quite the team they’ve been in recent years, but they already boast a solid nonconference win over Florida University.
Easy matchups with the University of Central Arkansas and Jacksonville University follow. And while the Hoosiers may be in Bloomington, students will be gone for the holidays, and the stands will be markedly bare. That said, neither the Bears nor the Dolphins are a serious threat.
The new year brings Illinois to town Jan. 3. The Illini are far removed from their 2004 Final Four, but Brad Underwood’s squad boasts a plethora of guards that could give the Hoosiers trouble.
Following that stretch, the heart of the Big Ten season begins. A Jan. 6 date with No. 5 University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and a visit to the Comcast Center against No. 23 Maryland open that section of the schedule.
If the Hoosiers march into the Crisler Center at 12-2, presumably ranked and with a chance at a top-five win ahead of them, conference championship talk and more will be justified.
In all, the Hoosiers are on solid ground. The 21-point throttling at Duke is a one-off contest against arguably the nation’s best team in one of college basketball’s most difficult places to play.
The loss at Arkansas was also the first road test for a youthful backcourt that missed both senior Zach McRoberts and junior Devonte Green in that game due to injury.
If the Hoosiers drop a game in this month-long stretch, it’s not time for panic. But Langford and this team's expectations of a 2018 national title may need to be reconsidered.
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