Indiana is about to embark on a very challenging portion of its schedule, one that includes road games at Michigan State, Minnesota, Michigan. Indeed, even the home games should be competitive, as Iowa and Ohio State are scheduled to come to Bloomington. So what I'm about to say, and more specifically its timing, may seem questionable, but here goes.
The Hoosiers are clearly the best team in the nation's best conference. To this point in the season Tom Crean's men have outscored conference opponents by 0.21 points per possession, a margin that moves IU to the head of the class in a loaded Big Ten. Michigan and Michigan State, Indiana's two nearest rivals in performance, are outscoring the league by 0.13 and 0.11 points per possession, respectively.
Certainly having two players prominently mentioned as national player of the year candidates has benefited the Hoosiers. Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo merit every accolade they've received, and then some. Combined they've made a remarkable 63 percent of their 405 shot attempts inside the arc, and they've preoccupied opposing defenses to such an extent that Christian Watford, Jordan Hulls, and Will Sheehey are all having career seasons on offense. (In a sense I suppose freshman point guard Yogi Ferrell is also having a "career" season, or at least a very good one.)
Not since Jon Diebler and David Lighty were teaming with a freshman named Jared Sullinger at Ohio State in 2010-11 have we seen a Big Ten team sink shots this reliably, and the Hoosiers are getting it done from both sides of the arc. That, plus a free throw rate that dwarfs that of any other team in the conference, has allowed IU to transcend its well-documented (but still relatively manageable) struggles with turnovers.
But as good as Indiana's been on offense -- and they may be the best team in the nation on that side of the ball -- the real story has been on defense. Last season in Bloomington a rotation very similar to this one played outstanding offense but rated out as the No. 7 defense in the Big Ten in conference play. And with IU adding a talented but diminutive freshman point guard in the person of Ferrell, the question coming into this season was whether Indiana's defense would be good enough for a team burdened with high expectations.
The answer to that question is now apparent. This defense is not only good enough, it's just plain good, ranking second only to Wisconsin's in Big Ten play. IU's defensive rebounding is off a hair from last season, but in literally every other category Crean's men have improved significantly. Most importantly, Indiana is forcing more misses and more turnovers while fouling less frequently. Questionable defense is simply the dog that didn't bark with the Hoosiers this season
Put together possibly the nation's best offense with a surprisingly strong defense, and there's not a lot left to find fault with. I don't expect the Hoosiers to win out by any means, not with the schedule they're facing. But this season's team is performing at a level that compares quite favorably with what this conference's strongest teams have done over the past few years.
Below I've listed the five most statistically dominant teams that the Big Ten has produced in recent years. Next to each team I've included their per-possession scoring margin that season in league play. Keep in mind Indiana's corresponding number for this season: +0.21.
Illinois, 2004-05 (+0.24)
The Illini recorded their ostentatious scoring margin against a much weaker conference than what the Hoosiers are facing this season. Still, that was a remarkable team Bruce Weber piloted in 2005. No need to rehash those details here (Dee Brown, Deron Williams, Arizona comeback, title game loss to North Carolina, etc.), just know that if you're mentioned in the same statistical breath as 2005-variety Illinois, you're teed up for a very special postseason.
Michigan State, 2004-05 (+0.18)
Call these Spartans the Forgotten Team. Mo Ager, Paul Davis and company had the misfortune of being flung into the same league in the same season as one historic group of Fighting Illini. Nevertheless, the team Tom Izzo had that season clearly ranks as one of the best the Big Ten has produced in the last decade. Even when MSU was badly misevaluated by that year's selection committee and given a No. 5 seed (!), this team still made a national semifinal.
Wisconsin, 2007-08 (+0.18)
The Badgers were supposed to take a big step back in 2007-08 after losing Alando Tucker to graduation, but someone forgot to tell Bo Ryan's team. Brian Butch, Trevon Hughes, and Joe Krabbenhoft blazed through a 16-2 Big Ten season, but an untimely encounter with Stephen Curry and his Davidson team of destiny brought Wisconsin's postseason to an early close.
Ohio State, 2011-12 (+0.17)
The Buckeyes had to share their Big Ten title with Michigan State and Michigan, but it was Thad Matta's team that carried the league's flag all the way to a national semifinal against Kansas. In the end OSU came within a lane violation (on an intentionally missed Aaron Craft free throw) of potentially getting a shot at Kentucky in the title game.
Wisconsin, 2009-10 (+0.17)
No Big Ten team of recent years has combined regular-season excellence with postseason disappointment as neatly as the 2009-10 Badgers. After posting a 13-5 record in league play, Ryan's team barely survived Wofford in the round of 64, before being blown out in the next game by Cornell, 87-69.
Round of 32
There are no national champions in this group, of course. You have to go all the way back to Michigan State in 2000 to find one of those in the Big Ten. Still, three of the league's five best per-possession teams since 2005 have gone on to make the Final Four. And if you're statistically dominant while being named something other than "Wisconsin," your chances could be better still.
In other words, Indiana fits the profile of an outstanding Big Ten team on a Final Four trajectory. The Hoosiers have work yet to do, naturally, but to this point the signs are very encouraging for IU fans.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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