BLOOMINGTON, IN – Indiana fans are going to want to chalk up the Hoosier’s 77-74 loss to Minnesota, who was previously winless in Big Ten play, to having an off day.
They wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. Indiana did have an off day. Coming off of a game at Penn State where they shot 16-24 from beyond the arc, the Hoosier’s pedestrian 4-18 performance provides a stark contrast.
But frankly, any team is going to win when they shoot 16-24 from three. The fact Penn State was able to make the Hoosiers work down the stretch is fairly amazing. And it also should have provided Hoosier fans with the forewarning they needed that this is a team that would be vulnerable on nights when the shots don’t drop. As they say, you live by the three, you die by the three.
“The easiest thing to do in the world is to be sky-high when you’re making shots,” Indiana head coach Tom Crean said after the game. “The hardest thing to understand is how committed you need to be to the game of defense and rebounding when you’re not.”
“We lost this game on the defensive end. The shooting obviously wasn’t good, but we lost this game on the defensive end.”
Therein lies the problem for Indiana.
The Hoosiers have plenty of offensive firepower in their lineup. Cody Zeller has proven to be the kind of program-changing recruit that the Indiana faithful had hoped he would be when he picked the Hoosiers over Butler and North Carolina. He’s a terrific low-post scorer and arguably the best big man in the country when it comes to running the floor from offense to defense.
And he’s not alone. Christian Watford is the perfect four to compliment Zeller, a perimeter oriented scorer that can spread the floor and give the big fella room to operate. Jordy Hulls is an underrated offensive option and a lights-out shooter. Verdell Jones, Will Sheehey and Victor Oladipo provide athleticism and aggressiveness on the wing while Matt Roth has proven capable of getting hot on the perimeter.
But for all of that offensive talent, Indiana lacks the kind of toughness that will allow them to survive when they are struggling to score.
As Tom Crean put it a dozen times during his post game press conference, the Hoosiers didn’t have an edge.
“We weren’t playing on edge the way that we have,” he said. “That may sound like a buzz word, but those are real. They practice hard and they prepare and all those things, but you’ve gotta have an edge.”
But the issue is more than just playing with an “edge”.
The issue is that Indiana is an inherently flawed basketball team, and the issues all lie on the defensive end of the floor.
For starters, this is not a group that is going to lock down the way that title contenders have to. For all of the ability that Hulls has offensively, he’s not a very good defender. He’s not all that big, he’s not all that quick and he’s not all that strong, especially when it comes to fighting through screens. But he’s also far and away the best point guard that Crean has at his disposal, which means that the Hoosiers, to be at their most effective offensively, need him on the floor.
Hulls isn’t alone in his struggles on that end of the floor. Far too often, Indiana simply fails to execute defensively as a team.
“It starts with our lack of awareness defensively,” Crean said. “Communication, weak side, ball side, challenging shots, block outs. The awareness never got where it needed to be until the end of the game. I said it to them all week, its a step they gotta take.”
“Teams that take the next step totally get that defense is what comes first in every situation. Defense creates the offense, defense creates more opportunities, defense creates the fast break. The best teams gain confidence from their defense, not the other way around.”
The other thing this group is missing is a bruiser in the paint. If Watford doesn’t deserve to be called soft, than he is dangerously close to the ledge. For all that Zeller gives the Hoosiers when he is on the floor, he’s a freshman that still needs a good 15-20 pounds of muscle added to his frame. Older, stronger post players are going to be able to push him around.
That was evident down the stretch against Minnesota, and its what cost Indiana the game. The Gophers had 16 offensive rebounds on the game, but nine of them came in the final 6:41. The reason Indiana wasn’t able to come back wasn’t because Minnesota continued to get good looks from the field; they didn’t.
The Gophers shot 50% from the field in the first half, hit 6-13 from beyond the arc and get whatever shot they wanted offensively. In the second half, that wasn’t true. Minnesota got a couple of good looks early in the half, but Indiana’s defense unquestionably tightened up down the stretch.
The problem was that after forcing the Gophers into a tough shot, they couldn’t finish the possession. Minnesota got second and third shots, and they capitalized on those opportunities. Simply put: Indiana’s struggles on the defensive glass hindered their ability to string together stops.
“Its deflating to give up that many offensive rebounds,” Zeller said.
The good news for Indiana fans is that this is still an inexperienced team. They aren’t necessarily young in this day and age of college basketball, but this is really the first time that any of the kids in this program have experienced success at the collegiate level. Think about it: prior to this season, the Hoosiers had been irrelevant on a national scale since Crean took over. The mindset of the 19 and 20 year olds on the roster will, eventually, become one that assumes they will be able to win simply by stepping foot onto the court. That gets magnified when every single Hoosier fan had all but assumed that this group was destined for the Final Four.
At some point, complacency is bound to set in. Winning — and understanding that continued success comes with consistent effort — is a skill, and its one that comes with a learning curve.
“Its different for all of them. We don’t have a lot of guys that come form winning back grounds,” Crean said. “So when you start to win, and things change around you, your mindset can’t change. They gotta learn and they gotta grow through that. You know this is new to them. As coaches, we’ve won before. We’ve been ranked. We’ve gone on the road and won. We’ve been to the Final Four. They haven’t.”
“When you’re going through that, the No. 1 thing is to stay committed to that improvement and never lose that edge.”
We can debate all day and night what, in particular, that “edge” is.
But what is indisputable is that the Hoosiers have major question marks that need to be answered.
When the Hoosiers are hitting their shots, they can hang with and beat anyone in the country, especially if that game is getting played in Assembly Hall. But if they don’t learn how to defend and they don’t get more physical under the basket, than this won’t be the only time that the Hoosiers end up on the wrong end of the score against a team they should be.
Even in Assembly Hall.