Critics panned Indiana for its non-conference schedule, and with good reason. The Hoosiers played four games against teams in the inside the top 100 in RPI before starting Big Ten play. It played nearly double that against teams ranked 200th or worse. Luckily for the Hooisers, the conference affords them plenty of opportunity to pick up the type of wins that impress the selection committee. They got their first chance for one of those wins against unbeaten No. 3 Wisconsin on Tuesday. All of a sudden, that creampuff non-conference slate doesn't seem to matter all that much.
Indiana got the first of a handful of resume-building wins it will need to make the NCAA tournament, beating Wisconsin 75-72 at Assembly Hall on Tuesday night. What had been a close game for the first 25 minutes of action looked to be slipping away from the Hoosiers before Tom Crean briefly benched star guard Yogi Ferrell. When the sophomore returned, he helped expose a potential weakness in the Badgers.
Sam Dekker had just made a three to get Wisconsin a 10-point lead over Indiana with 13:20 remaining, forcing Crean to call a timeout. In the first six minutes and 40 seconds of the second half, Ferrell missed three shots from behind the arc and attempted exactly zero shots from the paint. This after scoring six points in the first half on layups and free throws, and easily getting to the rack, but failing to convert, an additional five times. Crean sat Ferrell for three minutes. Meanwhile, the Hoosiers started to chip away at the lead by getting into the lane. After an Evan Gordon jumper, Will Sheehey and Stanford Robinson made back-to-back layups to cut the Indiana deficit to four.
At this point, Ferrell returned to the floor. He promptly hit a short jumper from just inside the free throw line and drew a foul on Traevon Jackson. He missed the free throw, but Noah Vonleh cleaned up the miss and put it back to tie the game. Within two minutes, Indiana had a lead it would not relinquish the rest of the game.
All told, Indiana had 52 points in the paint, outrebounded Wisconsin 33-28 and grabbed 11 offensive boards. It got three layups on three straight possessions, two of which broke ties with less than five minutes left in the game. For all the talk about this being the best offensive team Bo Ryan has had in his tenure at Wisconsin, it will struggle against teams with size or guards that can get into the paint with regularity.
Only three Badgers who get at least 15 minutes per game are 6-foot-7 or taller, and one of those, Sam Dekker, isn't known as a rim protector. The Badgers own wins over Iowa, Virginia and Florida this year, but they posted significant rebounding deficits against the Hawkeyes and Cavaliers, and the Gators were missing Dorian Finney-Smith when they lost in Madison. That the Badgers shot 53.6-percent from the floor on Tuesday night didn't matter when they couldn't secure a handful of crucial would-be defensive rebounds in the second half.
Wisconsin has never advanced beyond the Elite Eight under Ryan, having reached that high watermark once, back in 2005. This team has designs on a greater postseason result, but it will need to shore up its interior defense if it is to avoid the fate of so many Badger teams that came before it.