When the schedule came out I think we all focused on the first nine Big Ten games. Start with five of seven on the road and then come home for Michigan State (preseason #2) and Indiana (new coach, who knows, always a big game). After that, the second half of the conference schedule looked much more manageable. So now that we went 1-8 in that first half, what are some goals for the second half of the schedule?
When Tyler and I did our last Back & Forth post, I laid our what I believed to be reasonable expectations at the time - win six of our next 11 games. We were 0-4 at the time but had Iowa coming up at home so I felt like we could get on the winning track. I wishful-thinking'd the following:
Iowa, at Nebraska, at Wisconsin: 2-1
Michigan State, Indiana, Rutgers all at home: 2-1
at Ohio State, Wisconsin, Penn State at home: 1-2
at Indiana, Nebraska: 1-1
Honestly, we came surprisingly close to following that. Lost to Iowa in overtime, lost to Nebraska on a buzzer-beater when we were leading by two, can go 2-1 through the second set of games if we win tomorrow night. But we were also one bad pass away from Indiana perhaps shocking us with another buzzer beater, so we're pretty close to winless as well.
So what should be the goals for the second half of the conference schedule? The Tournament is already out (duh), the NIT is almost assuredly out (Ohio State went 17-14/7-11 last year and didn't make the NIT), but we still need to build some momentum for next season. If finishing 1-17 in the conference is "complete and total disaster" and finishing 10-8 is "stunning mid-season turnaround", what are the levels in-between?
The first step is to climb out of the basement (which hopefully happens tomorrow night - we'd move to 2-8 on the season, Rutgers would be 2-9, so we'd no long be 14th). Beyond that, though, I'm going to set the following goals:
3-1 In The Next Four Home Games
Here are the next four home games:
Penn State (15-8)
Rutgers and Wisconsin are both awful, so we simply must win those games at home. Penn State and Nebraska are both sneaky-good and we'll likely be underdogs at home. So I'll set the goal at 3-1 in those games. We're young, we've been learning a new system, things bottomed out in January. But we return everyone but Mark Alstork next season and, with this much easier schedule in the second half, we need to be on a bit of a roll heading into the offseason. "Need" as in "for this thing to feel like it's on track, we can't go 1-8 in the second half of the conference schedule".
So I'll set that as my first goal: win three of the next four at home.
A Shocking Win
Three chances: at #17 Ohio State, at #5 Michigan State, or home vs. #3 Purdue. A stretch goal? Absolutely. But I'm looking for a summer of feeling pretty good, and to feel pretty good, I'm not sure "well, we did beat Penn State down the stretch and they were decent". I need to hang my hat on something, and there's three hooks.
I don't think there's any chance we could win at Michigan State. Not after we saw how Bridges and Jackson tore us apart in Champaign. We have no one who can stick with Bridges and Jackson will probably drive the length of the court by himself and dunk on us seven times. Toss that one out.
But is it too much to ask that we beat Ohio State in Columbus next Sunday morning? Or that we stun Purdue in Champaign in a few weeks? Yes, I realize that we'll enter both games as double-digit underdogs, but I'm trying to set some #goals here. I want to feel good all summer and this is how I get there.
Win One Of The Other Two Road Games
That leaves two more games we haven't discussed: at Indiana and at Rutgers. Given that we'll almost assuredly lose at Ohio State and at Michigan State, these two games represent our only chance at a road win this season. When was the last time that happened? I know my freshman year (1991-92) we only won one road game (at Purdue, in overtime), but I can't recall another season where we went winless on the road.
So we need to win one of these two (or we need to somehow grab our shocking win on the road). We've come so close to winning that road game - overtime at Northwestern, a two-point lead as the Nebraska three pointer at the buzzer hung in the air - so we need to get over the hump in one of these games. Give me at least one road win so I can feel better.
Hmmm - my internal comp alarm just went off. I've seen a lot of people mentioning 1998 as a comp for this year (lost five seniors the year before, young team starts the Big Ten schedule 0-7 before going on a little roll and then making a big leap the following season). But maybe 1991-92 is the better comp here?
1991-92 (my freshman year, I was behind the basket in Krush which was still known as the Orange Crush at the time) was the year where everything fell apart after the Bruce Pearl sanctions. No Tournament the year before (we went 21-10/11-7 but were banned from the Tourney because of the sanctions). Restricted to two scholarships plus no off-campus recruiting meant a nothing recruiting class. In addition to all of that, the leading scorer from the previous season (Andy Kaufmann) missed the entire season for "failing to meet academic requirements". So that was a young team led by one post player (Deon Thomas) and one shooter from the outside (Tommy Michael).
One reliable post player (Leron), one reliable perimeter player (Trent), a bunch of patchwork underclassmen everywhere else... I think I've found my comp. That team started 2-7 in the Big Ten but then won 5 of the next 7 and went 7-11 in the Big Ten. Perhaps we can start 1-8 and then win five of the next 7 and finish 6-12? Expecting too much?
That team also returned everyone the following year, got Andy Kaufmann back from academic suspension, added Richard Keene, went 11-7 in the Big Ten and grabbed a six-seed in the NCAA Tournament (where they beat Long Beach State and then lost to 3-seed Vanderbilt).