The calendar has finally flipped to February, meaning March is officially right around the corner. Breezing through the month to get to March Madness may seem like a good idea, but February’s in-conference showdowns set the table for the NCAA Tournament and all the madness.
This weekend features more action-packed games in multiple conferences. The Big Ten showdown between the Indiana Hoosiers and the No. 9-ranked Wisconsin Badgers, to air Sunday, February 5 at 1 p.m. ET exclusively on CBS, is among the best.
We caught up with CBS Sports college basketball analyst Clark Kellogg — who will be calling Sunday’s action live — to break down the game and Indiana’s chances of springing an upset in Madison.
CBS Local Sports: With all of their injuries, can the Hoosiers compete with Wisconsin on the road in Madison this weekend?
Clark Kellogg: Well it’s always tough on the road, and Wisconsin’s one of the best teams in the country. It will be a challenge, but I think they can. They just need everybody to play at a really high level. It’s a real challenge, but they will look forward to it. They know what they have to do. Against Wisconsin, you have to be efficient at both ends. You have to make the good shots you get. I think they can. I don’t think it’s an automatic “gimme” blowout.
CBS Local Sports: With James Blackmon out for the foreseeable future, who are you looking to see step up for Indiana against Wisconsin and moving forward?
Kellogg: It’s a collective effort, but I have an isolated camera on two guys: Robert Johnson and Thomas Bryant. Those would be the two guys I would lock into as needing to carry the team offensively. Johnson is an excellent two-way guard. He can make shots off the dribble, can create [and] is experienced. As a guy who has played a lot of big minutes in a lot of big games, Bryant is a mobile big guy who gets it done inside and can step outside and make shots. He’s coming off a pretty strong game against Northwestern in terms of his production. Those two guys are where you have to look if you’re the Hoosiers coaching staff and Hoosiers to elevate their play and hopefully elevate the play of their teammates too.
CBS Local Sports: Do you see a situation developing where this Indiana team manages to miss the NCAA Tournament after posting massive wins over teams like UNC and Kansas early in the year?
Kellogg: Sure, ultimately you have to win enough games to be worthy of the tournament. The quality of your wins is important, but you need volume wins too. You just can’t have two or three big wins and lose a bunch of other games. So they’ve got an opportunity to fortify their resume, as do a number of teams that are in that situation. The committee doesn’t discount wins in November. When you have them against good opponents on neutral courts, they will have a little more shelf life.
But ultimately, you better have enough wins to give those big wins the shelf life they need to get you over the hump. You can win two really big games, but if you go on a 10-out-of-12-game losing streak to end the season, you’re not making the tournament. So, clearly from a mathematical standpoint, yes, it could happen. Will it? We’ll find out. Obviously the injuries are devastating to the Hoosiers, absolutely devastating. We don’t know the timeline on Blackmon’s return, what he would be like or what he is able to do now as he sits out. Can he practice? I don’t know any of that. But with that said, they clearly are depleted and are a totally different team.
And that’s the other thing the committee looks at: Who are you now? Not who you were before. This is a team that is totally different than the team that won those games back in November. So you look at the here and now. You don’t discount the past, but the here and now tends to be what the committee will focus on, particularly with how your team is constituted now if you lost players.
CBS Local Sports: The Badgers have won the last couple games while struggling offensively. How worried are you about the fact that they’ve had difficulty putting up points lately?
Kellogg: Not worried at all. Every team’s going to struggle at some point. [In] UCLA against Arizona, Arizona did a nice job defensively. UCLA missed some shots they normally make, and that’s a high-octane team. Teams are going to struggle. Different teams at different times will struggle for different reasons during the marathon of the college basketball season. What you default back to is ‘who are they typically?’ The Badgers are an efficient offensive team with experience, talent and depth. They’re still scoring at a high rate overall, and they don’t overwhelm anybody. But they beat just about everybody.
CBS Local Sports: Wisconsin has a pretty favorable schedule, especially against the top teams in the Big Ten, with matchups against Maryland and Northwestern at home. Is it their conference to lose at this point?
Kellogg: I would frame it differently. It is their conference to win. Because you still — no matter where the game is being played — have other teams that are capable of winning the conference. Home court is an advantage, but it doesn’t assure you or guarantee you wins. Yes, it’s theirs to win, [but] they have to go win it. And yes, they have some games at home that look favorable. But they have to come play, or they could lose those games.
It’s theirs to win at this point. But don’t think the Wildcats and the Boilermakers aren’t thinking to themselves that they have a chance to win it too. So, I understand your point, but I’m not going to fully drink the Kool-Aid on that one.
CBS Local Sports: Speaking of drinking the Kool-Aid, Wisconsin — through no fault of their own — lacks wins against quality Top-10 teams this year. Are they worthy of Top-10 status considering the opponents they’ve beaten?
Kellogg: That’s interesting, that’s a really good question. I look at the rankings as being more comparative and reactive than being instructive or predictive; they’re numbers next to names. And in a year when you don’t have super dominant teams, or a couple of really dominant teams, we have a cluster of really good teams. And then you’ve got another cluster of excellent teams. However you want to draw that line. Wisconsin is in that second tier to me right now, and that means you can be ranked anywhere from eight to 20.
How you evaluate that, to me, is subjective. I think they’re worthy of being ranked where they are. I’m sure there are some colleagues of mine who can make cases for other teams based on the quality of wins against perceived tougher opponents. The rankings are fairly way down in my evaluation of teams in terms of criteria.