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For a Northwestern team with big (and realistic) dreams, beating Indiana is a must

The toughest part of the Wildcats’ remaining schedule starts with the Hoosiers at Welsh-Ryan.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Indiana Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Charlie Brown is getting really close to finally kicking that football.

With each successive win — like the 73-61 triumph over Nebraska at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Thursday night — the Northwestern Wildcats inch closer and closer to doing something that no team has ever done in school history. But you knew that already.

The Wildcats have won five straight games and are now 17-4 overall on the season, with an impressive 6-2 Big Ten record to boot. They sit just a half-game behind Maryland and Wisconsin for the No. 1 spot in the conference and are tied with Purdue. The next closest teams are two games back.

One of those teams is Indiana, which comes to Evanston on Sunday looking to bounce back from a dreadful thumping in Ann Arbor at the hands of Michigan. The loss snapped a three-game winning streak for Tom Crean’s Hoosiers, who are still trying to figure out how to adjust to the recent news that stud sophomore OG Anunoby will miss the rest of the season with a knee injury.

Right now, as crazy as it may sound, Northwestern is firmly in the NCAA Tournament picture and Indiana probably on the outside looking in or at the very least firmly on the bubble. But with multiple matchups with the Big Ten’s better teams coming up and without a true statement win, the Wildcats still have a lot of work to do, and a loss to Indiana could be costly.

Northwestern has yet to beat a team in conference play that’s even considered a top-50 team per KenPom. Four of the Wildcats’ next five games will be against such teams, and it’s well within the realm of possibility that Northwestern slips to 7-6 in the Big Ten by February 16th, the day after Maryland comes to town.

Beating either Purdue or Wisconsin on the road will be an extremely difficult task, which is why the games against Indiana and Illinois — both in Evanston — are so important. It’s clear this team, currently 11-1 at home this season, is more comfortable at Welsh-Ryan (which has finally turned into a homecourt advantage), so it needs to take advantage of its home-heavy stretch schedule. With Indiana reeling from the loss of Anunoby, the Hoosiers are vulnerable and just got smacked by a Michigan team that has already lost to Iowa and Illinois.

The problem is that the Hoosiers have one of the nation’s best offenses, posting the 11th-best adjusted offensive efficiency in the country, according to KenPom. They take good shots and make them, and are able to get a lot of easy second-chance looks at the rim because of Thomas Bryant and Juwan Morgan. Northwestern big man Dererk Pardon will have his hands full, as will Gavin Skelly and perhaps even Barret Benson.

But what makes Indiana such a dangerous team — outside of the playmaking ability of James Blackmon Jr. — is that they’re very good beyond the arc. With two players (Blackmon and Robert Johnson) combining for almost 5.5 threes per game at around a 43 percent clip, the Hoosiers are 20th nationally in three-point percentage.

What’s interesting, though, is that Indiana is just 4-7 this season when making seven or more threes. So, it’ll be interesting to see how the Wildcats approach the Hoosiers defensively, especially the potent backcourt of Blackmon and Johnson. Northwestern hasn’t really faced a guard duo as explosive as that one so far, as there simply aren’t many like it throughout the country.

With that said, Northwestern should win on Sunday — Kenpom has the hosts as a six-point favorite — and if the Wildcats are able to do a good enough job on Thomas Bryant down low to withstand the points Blackmon and Johnson will likely get, they’ll do that. A win would create some breathing room for Northwestern during the Purdue-Wisconsin-Illinois-Maryland swing.

Yes, Northwestern can still make the tournament with a loss. But when you look at what’s ahead, this is Northwestern’s best opportunity to get a high-quality statement win. The Wildcats are at home. Indiana is reeling. If there’s ever a time to beat a traditional college basketball blue blood, this is absolutely it.

At least two wins during this five-game stretch are needed, but three would be ideal. A loss to Indiana, and the Wildcats are immediately up against the wall, even more so when you consider the rematches with Indiana and Purdue in the final days of the season.