BLOOMINGTON – Assembly Hall has been friendly to Indiana this year. The Hoosiers are 8-0 in Bloomington and after the victory over Florida State players and coaches raved about the energy boost the crowd provided them. A couple games away from home may have made the Hoosiers tougher and more resilient as a group, but there's nothing like the feeling of playing at home in front of a Friday night crowd to get a team fired up.
And Indiana needs to be fired up. After dropping its Big Ten opener in embarrassing fashion against Wisconsin, IU could really use a victory tonight against Nebraska to even its conference mark. That's especially true because the Cornhuskers figure to be one of the worst teams in the league this year. If the Hoosiers can't get a win tonight, at home against a Nebraska team still finding its way under new coach Fred Hoiberg, Big Ten victories may be very difficult to come by this season.
In addition, Nebraska guard Jervay Green has been suspended indefinitely for violating team rules, Hoiberg announced Friday. Green started the Cornhuskers' first nine games and is averaging 10.3 points and 4.9 rebounds per game.
Under coach Tim Miles, the Cornhuskers had a reputation as a team that played scrappy defense, turning games ugly and winning some matchups against teams with more talent. That identity is gone under Hoiberg, at least for now. All the players that made the 'Huskers who they were in the last few seasons – Glynn Watson Jr., Isaiah Roby, Isaac Copeland and James Palmer to name a few – have moved on from the program. A nearly entirely new roster has taken its place and the results to date have not been pretty. Nebraska already has losses to Southern Utah and UC-Riverside on its ledger and is coming off a 19-point defeat against Creighton in which it fell behind 37-7 in the first half. The Cornhuskers are giving up an average of 77.2 points per game, 324th in the country out of 353 teams.
None of that is to say the Hoosiers can take this game lightly. They'll still need to execute and avoid turning the ball over. In the second half of the Connecticut game, the Huskies tried to give the game away with live-ball turnovers, but too often Indiana failed to convert on the fast break and the game remained close as a result. That will be an area of emphasis tonight for the Hoosiers: Nebraska is likely to give them plenty of opportunities for easy baskets and it will make this game go much more smoothly if they can convert. Of course, those run-out baskets at home are also huge for crowd intensity.
Tonight is also an opportunity for Indiana to build chemistry with its full team healthy. The matchup against Connecticut was the first time all season the Hoosiers have had all 11 scholarship players available and that made a huge difference late in the game. Especially important was the return of sophomore Rob Phinisee, who missed four straight games with an ankle injury but came through with six points, four rebounds and two assists in 13 minutes. He's still rebuilding his conditioning after missing a lot of practice, so any minutes he gets tonight will be a plus. A healthy Phinisee makes this a different team as he is Indiana's best ball-handler and on-ball defender.
Defensively, Indiana can be a little bit more aggressive than usual. Nebraska has been hamstrung on offense by atrocious free-throw shooting this season, hitting just 56% as a team, 351st in the country. The Hoosiers can take advantage by ratcheting up the pressure a little, knowing that putting the Cornhuskers at the foul line is not as big of a problem as it would be against a better team.
Indiana should win this game. The Hoosiers are coming off a confidence-building victory against UConn and are at home in front of what figures to be another very good crowd. A loss tonight would raise some alarm bells about how good this team can ultimately be.