I already previewed tonight's matchup between Michigan and #22 Indiana, but, because this game is so significant to both teams, I wanted to provide you with an Indiana perspective. Kyle Robbins, who is the managing editor of The Crimson Quarry -- SB Nation's Indiana team site -- was kind enough to answer my questions about the Hoosiers. Kyle tackles topics such as whether Indiana actually is a great team or one that's benefited from a soft schedule, why IU tends to struggle on the road more than others, how freshman center Thomas Bryant can be a problem for Michigan on the block, and whether the Wolverines or the Hoosiers will win tonight's showdown.
Indiana is 18-4 overall and tied with Iowa atop the Big Ten standings with an 8-1 conference record. However, there are still lots of questions about the Hoosiers because they have played a fluffy Big Ten schedule and have only one quasi-signature win (Notre Dame in Indianapolis). Just how how good is this Indiana team? Will the Hoosiers compete for a Big Ten title in the second half of the conference slate or will they falter as the going gets tougher?
Indiana's a good team. But I'm still where I was before the season on this Hoosier team. What Indiana depends on most -- outside shooting -- is by nature a fickle beast. When the offense is clicking and shots are falling at the rates they can, I truly think Indiana can beat anyone in the country. That said, if shots aren't going in from distance, Indiana, especially earlier in the season, was and is apt to lose to dang near anyone. That's why you've seen Indiana boatrace Illinois, Ohio State, and Northwestern at home -- and then turn around and struggle mightly with Minnesota on the same floor. I think it's very fair to still have reservations about this Indiana team, but I don't think it's totally fair to discount what they did over the course of the last month even if the Hoosiers were to lose in Ann Arbor. Blowing teams out at home by the margins Indiana has been impressive, regardless of what happens here on out. But those blowouts aren't necessarily predictive of this Indiana team's future this season. The wait-and-see approach is a just fine one for this Indiana team.
Speaking of how good Indiana might be, the Hoosiers perform very differently at home versus on the road. That's normal for most teams, but this gap seems to be larger for the Hoosiers. They have had little problem shellacking the likes of Creighton, Ohio State, and Northwestern in Assembly Hall, but they have struggled to put Rutgers and Minnesota away outside of Indiana. Because tonight's game will be in Ann Arbor, have you noticed anything that would explain why Indiana has a tougher time on the road than most? If so, what is it?
See above. It's all about shooting. It's easiest to win road games by playing a slow-down, muck-it-up, Wisconsin-under-Bo-Ryan style. That's not Indiana. No other part of the game is affected on the road as much as shooting, with unfamiliar sightlines and opposing fans bearing down on you, whatever. It's pretty simple: it's easy for Indiana to ride that wave and make shots inside Assembly Hall than it is for them to do so outside of it. Add into that maybe a bit of nerves to agitate Indiana's sometimes turnover-prone nature, and you've got the perfect ingredients to struggle to win games outside of your home arena.
I have unrelated questions about three different Hoosiers that I'll group here. (1) Michigan has seen enough from Yogi Ferrell over the years to know what to expect from him tonight, so, instead, my question is what type of legacy has (or will) Ferrell left (leave) at Indiana. (2) How has former five-star recruit and center Thomas Bryant performed in his freshman season? What kind of problems can he give a Michigan frontcourt that has had trouble defending bullies in the paint? (3) How have IU fans taken to former Wolverine and owner of the Big Ten's biggest calves Max Bielfeldt?
Okay, I'll take 'em one at a time.
For Yogi, it's interesting. Really interesting. Because, you'd think, Indiana's all time DIME KING, the being Indiana's leader on the floor for two-to-three moderately successful seasons. But he's been stuck in a tumultuous era at Indiana. Plenty of Indiana fans -- still -- have opinions on Tom Crean. You had all the off-court alcohol related incidents in the last two seasons, one of which was when Yogi got dinged for having a fake ID. And it's the context of who Yogi's compared to in terms of recent Indiana stars, too. You won't find an Indiana fan with a cross word to say about Jordan Hulls or Christian Watford or Victor Oladipo or Cody Zeller, while none had to carry Indiana like Ferrell has had to at times over the last three seasons. Don't get me wrong, Yogi will be remembered more than fondly by every sane Indiana fan. But, and I think he'd agree with you on this, he's still waiting on that moment. The holy-hell-I-remember-exactly-where-I-was moment for either himself or his team. That's where so much of his legacy will be written based upon the last few weeks of his career at Indiana, fair or not. Many Indiana fans don't have that one shot, or one moment, to which you can tie his memory and legacy.
Bryant's been amazing down low -- and his growth since November and December is obvious, especially when it comes to the defensive end. Bryant's offensive skill and talents are obvious within minutes of watching him down low -- it's why he was leading the nation in FG% at the last time I checked. (That's probably changed now, but whatever.) I think he matches up incredibly favorably against Donnal and Doyle down low, so it would behoove Tom Crean to make sure his offense plays through Bryant all evening long. I think it could be a huge night for him.
And, yeah, those calves man. Y'all weren't kiddin'. Bielfeldt's every middle-aged white-man in Indiana's favorite player. Does things the right way, plays hard, smart, gritty, all that stuff. Seriously, he might as well be Indiana's mascot. And he's fit in well on the court, too -- there's a dang good chance Indiana loses that Rutgers game if it's not for Max's production off the bench. Knowing Tom Crean, I'd be shocked if there's not a major emphasis to let Bielfeldt stick it to a Michigan staff that Crean has famously had issues with previously. Like, find out of there's a prop bet on whether Max Bielfeldt will start for Indiana at Michigan or not. If there is, bet the house on it.
Indiana has another potent offense (20th in adjusted efficiency), but the bigger story may be how its defense has improved tremendously in the past month. Not too long ago, the Hoosiers' defense was outside the top 100 in adjusted efficiency. Now? 59th. This seems to have coincided with when James Blackmon, Jr. was ruled out for the rest of the season with a knee injury. Why has Indiana's defense progressed so much in Blackmon's absence? And where do the weak points remain that Michigan can attack?
James Blackmon is a good player, and Indiana is not inherently better without him. That said, rolling out your five best players on the floor at the same time doesn't always work. Blackmon's an incredibly skilled scorer, and a rather porous or disinterested defender. To be honest, I'm not sure Yogi Ferrell and James Blackmon are built to play together -- so this might be best for all involved. I think they got in each other's way when it came to using possessions and neither could be considered good perimeter defenders. Shooting, in many ways, is governed by the law of diminishing returns. That's what Blackmon is, and Indiana simply has so many shooters that it's not a problem to replace that outside production. The tradeoff is giving more minutes to freshmen OG Anunoby and Juwan Morgan, who are far better defenders (Anunoby anywhere, Morgan in the post) than Blackmon.
Don't get me wrong, James Blackmon is a great player, this isn't a rip of him, so to speak. The pieces for this team just fit a little bit better together with a couple more skilled wing defenders on the floor, rather than an offensive oriented player.
This is a very important game for both teams and will have a sizable impact on the Big Ten standings. As of now, both Vegas and KenPom seem to give Michigan a three-point edge, which can be attributed to the Wolverines' home-court advantage. What do you think? Will Michigan hold serve at home or will Indiana secure a signature road victory? Who wins? Final score?
It's hard to say. I think these teams are pretty evenly matched, and I think the fact that it's in Ann Arbor makes up for the fact Michigan may be without Caris Levert. I think the game hinges on two matchups: Thomas Bryant vs. Michigan's interior players & Duncan Robinson vs. Indiana's perimeter defenders. If Indiana goes to Bryant early and often, I'm not sure Mark Donnal or Ricky Doyle can defend him. But he's also a freshman, on the road, in the Big Ten, so there's a lot of uncertainty there. I'm also a bit concerned Tom Crean will "overdo" it with attempting to let Max Bielfeldt get his. Max is a good player, and he's done a ton for Indiana, and I hope he plays well. But if you're thinking with a brain and not a heart, this isn't the game to feed him heavily. It's taking away Indiana's biggest advantage.
All that said, I think this game really hinges on one thing: How well does U-M shoot it from the outside? If Duncan Robinson (who I'm mildly in love with, by the way) comes out cookin', I think Indiana might get boatraced. Indiana's cold shooting against Minnesota is incredibly concerning, and I'm not sure they can keep up with a hot-shooting Michigan team on the road.
My brain says Indiana, without Caris Levert playing, is the better team. But I'm taking Michigan in this one, I'm just too concerned with Indiana's shooting ability post-Minnesota and on the road. U-M 75, Hoosiers 69. Nice.
A big thanks to Kyle for answering my questions! He's a must-follow on Twitter.