BLOOMINGTON — On Wednesday night, the Indiana men’s basketball team stomped Penn State like an insect.
A few days earlier, the Hoosiers were pushed around by Michigan. Last week, IU outlasted Purdue in an upset.
The telescoping of those three games sums up what the Hoosiers are and could become.
When Indiana is good, it can beat anyone in the country. When the Hoosiers have lapses, they can lose to anyone.
After its 74-57 victory over the Nittany Lions at Assembly Hall, Indiana is 15-5 and 6-4 in the Big Ten. That was a bit of a revenge triumph since the Hoosiers lost to Penn State 61-58 on Jan. 2.
Beating Purdue was a big deal. The Boilermakers were ranked No. 4 in the nation, and IU took every body blow and deflected them in the 68-65 win.
Illustrating how major this was to Indiana fans, football coach Tom Allen told a story of how he was recruiting out of town when his hotel TV went on the blink during the crucial final minutes and he had to telephone his wife to get the closing play-by-play. So yes, big win that had the fan base riveted.
Of course, three days later, the Hoosiers went out and played like space cadets, falling to Michigan 80-62.
Bringing us to Penn State II. If Wednesday’s game was a fight, the referee would have stopped it. The Hoosiers terrorized the visitors, going up 46-17 at halftime. The score was 15-2, 22-5 and 31-8 along the way. IU was shooting about 70% from the field at one point and the Lions around 15%.
Penn State was in danger of being demoted to the Ivy League to keep Penn company. As lousy as the Nittany Lions were shooting, much of the blame could be attributed to Indiana’s defense. It was hungry, pressuring, agile and aggravating.
“I just thought the first half, we were locked in,” coach Mike Woodson said.
As marvelous as the first half was for the Hoosiers, the second half against the 8-9 Nittany Lions was somewhat messier. Penn State self-corrected and began making shots. The Hoosiers were not as tenacious on defense. Indeed, the Lions won the second half 40-28.
“We’ve got to commit ourselves to 40 minutes,” Woodson said, frowning over that development.
Magnificent ball movement paid off for IU in the first half, and capitalizing on the open shots propelled the Hoosiers to the gargantuan lead. Guard Xavier Johnson ended up with 19 points, forward Race Thompson with 18 and forward Trayce Jackson-Davis with 15.
As usual, Jackson-Davis periodically electrified fans with some of his backboard-shaking, emphatic Trayce Jams.
Yet the margin of victory was somewhat disguised by the comparatively lackadaisical second half. Hard to take negativity away overall from a 17-point win, but the sluggishness of the last 20 minutes clearly bugged Woodson.
So there was good news, bad news, following the pattern of the energizing takedown of Purdue and the throw-away game to Michigan.
From the first moment Woodson met with this bunch in his debut season as a college coach, he stressed defense being the identity of the team. When the Hoosiers are on defensively, living up to Woodson’s commandments, they seem capable of defeating anyone or at least playing with anyone.
Going into the Penn State game, IU led the Big Ten in defensive field goal percentage and scoring defense.
“We were getting some stops,” Thompson said. “We just came out with more energy (than versus Michigan). We talked about it as a unit.”
If they had been able to stick with the defensive game plan longer, the Hoosiers may have trounced the Nittany Lions by 50. The fact there was slippage, even within the context of an easy win, added worry lines to Woodson’s face.
That’s because Maryland looms on the road Saturday and Illinois is the next home game Feb. 5. No free passes there. When they are very, very good, the Hoosiers D up. This far into the 2021-22 season, there are enough examples of what happens if they do or if they don’t.