On Tuesday, Indiana women’s basketball returns to Assembly Hall to commence its regular season. Expectations are high from fans, the national media and especially head coach Teri Moren and her Hoosiers, who are gunning for the program’s first national title.
But we’re not even at Thanksgiving yet, so March Madness is essentially a figment of our imagination. Before even considering cutting down the nets, the Hoosiers will have to endure a marathon of grueling challenges over the coming months.
A pair of home games against the University of Vermont Catamounts and University of Massachusetts Lowell River Hawks to open the season figure to provide a comfortable transition. Unless either of the vaunted America East Conference powerhouses can manage an improbable upset, Indiana will ease into its third game of the season.
I hope the players cherish those beatdowns, because arguably the toughest test of the season awaits them just a few days later.
At No. 5 Tennessee on Nov. 14
The Lady Volunteers lost pretty surprisingly to Michigan in the second round of last year’s NCAA Tournament, but they’ve somehow bolstered an already very talented team. Senior guard Jordan Horston and senior center Tamari Key highlight the returning cast, but Tennessee’s group of newcomers is frightening.
Freshman guard Justine Pissott, the No. 11 recruit in the country, may not even see extended minutes despite her enticing three-and-D potential. New Lady Vols’ senior forward Rickea Jackson was lighting the SEC on fire at Mississippi State University, scoring a conference-high 20.3 points per game before entering the transfer portal in January and transferring to Tennessee over the summer.
The talent is undeniable, but chemistry is a question mark for the Lady Vols. Indiana has that in its favor with at least three of the Hoosiers’ presumptive starting five being tight-knit veterans.
It might take a little luck, but it’s early in the season and both teams could be ironing out rotations and tactics, so I’m not ruling anything out for this game.
No. 12 North Carolina on Dec. 1
If you’re new to this, yes, North Carolina is not just good at men’s basketball.
The Tar Heels had some bad luck drawing eventual champions South Carolina in the Sweet 16 last year, but they gave the Gamecocks their closest game of the entire tournament.
This isn’t the most daunting test of the season, but it’s still one of the more noteworthy out-of-conference matchups. It’s also the day after Indiana men’s basketball takes on No. 1 North Carolina, and I hope Hoosier fans don’t let that potential disappointment dissuade them from returning to Assembly Hall for a second consecutive day of Big Ten/ACC Challenge matchups.
The Tar Heels return four starters this year, so they’re not starting from scratch. They haven’t been a real threat on the national stage in eight years, but head coach Courtney Banghart has the program moving in the right direction.
It should be an electric environment, so I’ll give the Hoosiers a slight edge for homecourt advantage. Plus, I’m a sucker for a great uniform matchup, so that makes this game all the more appealing.
No. 4 Iowa on Feb. 9 and Feb. 26
Before last year’s Big Ten Championship heartbreak, Indiana went 0-2 against the Hawkeyes in the regular season. The Hoosiers lost both games by a combined 11 points, though, so it’s not like they weren’t competing.
Maybe that’s just searching for a moral victory, but Iowa is a really strong team with an unstoppable weapon in junior guard Caitlin Clark. Oh, and one of the most dominant centers in the country, Monika Czinano, is back for her fifth season.
Hanging with Iowa for three full games, matching them dagger for dagger, was impressive. When you’re playing against Clark, you know she’s going to execute 30-foot step backs and contested logo threes. There’s just really no strategy to slow her down.
However, containing Clark’s supporting cast is crucial for Indiana, which is going to be a little trickier this season given the Hawkeyes’ enhanced depth. Splitting these two games is probably ideal, but a sweep would be nice revenge.
What should you make of all this
As I’m sure you’ve gathered, the schedule is not a cakewalk. It’s more like a cake-dead sprint, which, from what I’ve heard, is much less fun. I didn’t even mention other in-conference opponents like No. 14 Ohio State, No. 17 Maryland, No. 22 Nebraska and No. 25 Michigan.
While Moren has been adept at reloading rosters, the Hoosiers will lose some major, dare I say invaluable, pieces after this season. The team is ready to compete now, and while the young core is promising, it may be now or never for title contention.
Time will tell if they’re up for the challenge.
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