Indiana’s surprising loss to Minnesota comes with few real consequences, but when the Hoosiers line up against less-talented teams in the NCAA Tournament, opposing underdogs will be optimistic about their chances.
After the defeat, Indiana still sits alone atop the Big Ten Standings. While the team may fall a few spots in the polls, earning a No. 1 seed in March Madness is still extremely likely.
The logistics of Indiana’s path to a national title remain unchanged.
However, the Gophers' impressive showing provides more evidence that the Hoosiers are all too vulnerable.
In a season where no team has been able to prove itself as a legitimate No. 1, Indiana appeared to be creating space from the pack of top contenders.
With Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo emerging as candidates for the National Player of the Year award, in addition to the team's impressive depth and balance, Indiana seemed like the safest bet to win it all—until last night.
Minnesota’s Trevor Mbakwe provided a blueprint for teams to take down the Hoosiers. He never avoided Zeller in the contest and took the game right to Indiana’s star.
Zeller is a supremely skilled big man who runs the floor as well as any player of a similar size. He is versatile and intelligent, but he is not a physical force down low on either end of the court.
Mbakwe—and backup Elliott Eliason in spells—was extremely physical with Zeller. It is no coincidence Eliason picked up four fouls in just 14 minutes, while Mbakwe also finished with four fouls.
Zeller did not deal with the tactics well. He recorded just nine points and seven rebounds while shooting 2-of-9 from the floor. It took him 31:20 to record his first field goal.
Mbawke also had no trouble scoring on Zeller, finishing the night with 21 points and 12 rebounds.
The Minnesota forward was the tougher and more energized player in this game, which comes as no surprise given the circumstances. Mbakwe had a manic crowd exploding after every play he made, and he was already extremely energized by a matchup against the nation’s best team.
This will not be the last time Indiana faces a physical, athletic big man who is supremely motivated to take on one of college basketball’s blue bloods. In the NCAA Tournament, the Hoosiers may face multiple teams like this.
After Tuesday night’s loss, there is reason to doubt Zeller’s ability to perform under such circumstances. He has the remainder of the regular season and the Big Ten tournament to prove he can handle physical abuse and a great showing from his counterpart.
Given his talent, it is entirely possible that he does exactly that. But for now, Indiana has reason to be concerned.
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