After what may have been IU men's basketball's toughest week in the nation's deepest conference, a third straight ranked team awaits. IU travels to play No. 24 Penn State at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday. The Hoosiers' steadily improving defense will be key against a team that has been among the top-40 offenses in the nation this season.
At halftime against Maryland on Sunday, IU men’s basketball had to make adjustments. The Hoosiers could not get defensive stops in the first half and fell behind as a result. Maryland converted on seemingly every 3-pointer, and IU’s offense could only do so much to keep the game even somewhat within reach.
So IU head coach Archie Miller switched freshman forward Trayce Jackson-Davis onto star Maryland sophomore forward Jalen Smith. Already a dominant player inside, Smith was hitting threes in the first half, stretching out IU’s defense.
“We wanted a more mobile guy in the ball screen to not get as stretched, maybe a better cover on the three line,” Miller said. “They weren't setting as many ball screens obviously with Scott, but they missed a couple.”
Even if Smith had a dominant day, IU’s defense started to get stops in the second half. The adjustments worked, and IU began to come back.
“We were trying to run them off the line,” senior guard Devonte Green said after Sunday’s loss. “We were all on the same page on the ball screen. I think we did that better the second half.”
After allowing 45 points in the first half, the Hoosiers defense allowed 32 in the second. IU only allowed 16 points over the first 13 minutes of the second half. And even if IU was never fully able to pull away, it was a stretch of defensive play emblematic of the improvements it has made on the defensive end of the floor through the toughest games of its season.
IU held Michigan State to 63 points, 14.1 points below its average. IU held Ohio State to 54 points, 19.1 points below its average. And IU held Rutgers to 59 points, 12.7 points below its average.
Even still, IU has been a far better team within the confines of Assembly Hall. After a week in which two top-20 ranked teams came to Bloomington, the strength of competition doesn’t relent.
The Nittany Lions are 40th in the country and scoring 77.6 points per game, but 140th defensively and allowing 67.7 points per game. They are 24th in KenPom, matching its AP Poll ranking and 27th in the NET rankings. Because Penn State would be a top-75 ranked team on the road for IU, a win would go in the Quadrant 1 section of its tournament resume.
Penn State is 10-1 at home this season, its only loss coming against Wisconsin. This will be the first home game for the Nittany Lions since Jan. 18.
IU has played twice since Penn State last took the floor Wednesday Jan. 22 at Michigan. It’s had time to rest and prepare for an IU team coming off its biggest individual week of the season.
That’s juxtaposed against an IU locker room traveling off a game that slipped out of its grasp in the final seconds. Miller talked after the game Sunday about not losing or gaining too much confidence after any win or loss. IU is still in the thick of the NCAA tournament picture, moving up to an 8 seed in ESPN’s Bracketology released Tuesday.
IU’s stock has progressively risen as the defense gets closer to the level Miller said he expected it to reach. Penn State is just the second ranked team IU has played on the road this season after struggling away from Assembly Hall. A win at Penn State would be IU’s biggest road win of the season. To do that, Miller will need his team’s defense to travel.