Indiana’s chance at a statement win slipped through its fingers.
Sixteenth-ranked Purdue downed the Hoosiers, 69-64, at Assembly Hall on Thursday to send Indiana to its fourth loss in five games and keep the Hoosiers’ NCAA tournament chances in doubt.
The Hoosiers led for long stretches in the game but shot just 34.6 percent in the second half as Purdue overwhelmed them down the stretch. Indiana fell to 15-10 overall and 5-7 in the Big Ten with the loss.
The Boilermakers kept within striking distance of Big Ten-leading Wisconsin with the win, moving to 9-3 in the league (two games back of the Badgers) and 20-5 overall.
Here are the four things you need to know from the game:
1. Indiana is nearing the bubble brink: The Hoosiers entered the night squarely on the bubble and missed a golden opportunity Thursday to give themselves some breathing room. It’s all about opportunity cost for Indiana. This loss in and off itself isn’t particularly damaging as Purdue is awfully good and will be as so by the selection committee next month, though losing four of five certainly is problematic no matter who the Ls come against.
No, it hurts because what could have been. If Indiana tops Purdue, it gives the Hoosiers a major resume boost because not only do they simply need to start stacking wins, but because it’s a win that checks off multiple boxes as it would have came against a high-quality team.
Now, Indiana is looking at a schedule that has just one more such opportunity, and that comes on the road against these same Boilermakers, which hardly looks like a winnable game at this point. The task now for Indiana is to pile up wins against sometimes good but other times ‘meh’ competition, and the Hoosiers have to do it mostly on the road with four of their final six coming away from Bloomington. Beating Michigan and Northwestern at home looks to be a must with some combination on the road against Minnesota, Iowa and Ohio State trending in that direction as well.
2. Caleb Swanigan can’t be stopped: I don’t know if Swanigan can make up the distance between himself and Frank Mason and Josh Hart in the player of the year race, but he’s doing his damnedest. The Purdue big man had 16 points (6 of 12 shooting), 14 rebounds, three assists and a block before fouling out (more on that later).
Swanigan has now gotten double-doubles in seven-consecutive games, and in an astounding 21 of 25 games this season. He’s an absolute monster.
He’s not as dynamic as those two aforementioned guards, and there’s debate on whether or not he’s even the Big Ten’s best big man with Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ a worthy choice, but it’s best to not lose sight of just how dominant Swanigan has been this season. He’s been elite in almost every phase of the game.
3. James Blackmon, Jr. had a tough return to the court: After missing the last four games with a leg injury, James Blackmon’s return to the lineup was not exactly a triumphant return. The junior went 3 of 14 from the field, including 1 of 7 from 3-point range. He did add three rebounds and four assists on the night, but all in all, in was tough sledding out there for him.
Indiana’s injury woes are well known at this point so getting Blackmon back, even if there’s some rust or continued limitations, is an important thing. He is their leading scorer after all, and they’ll absolutely need him hitting on all cylinders as they try to thread the needle through a small path to an NCAA tournament berth.
4. Half measures and double fouls are always lame: Mike Ehrmantraut once warned Walter White that half measures only lead to bigger problems down the road. It’s good advice, even if in that exact situation it was morally, shall we say, questionable, ut, generally, not a bad ethos to go by.
The officiating crew in Bloomington clearly aren’t ‘Breaking Bad’ viewers.
The stripes, apparently in disagreement, called a double-foul on Thomas Bryant and Swanigan with under 50 seconds left when one had a charge on Bryant and another a block on Swanigan.
Have you ever seen two players foul out at the same time? 🤔
Not only is that just a frustratingly fence-sitting call, but it fouled both players out of the game in the final minute of a five-point game. So two of the best big men in the Big Ten had to watch, and the rest of us didn’t get to see them close out a rivalry game.
Double-fouls almost always are cop-out calls that don’t serve much of a purpose other than for the referee to better his fouls-per-whistle ratio. A double-foul that results in a charge and a block on the same play is just lunacy. They’re mutually exclusive, and the whistle – and rulebook – should reflect that.
Indiana’s OG Anunoby out indefinitely with knee injury
The exact extent and specific diagnosis of the injury suffered by Indiana sophomore OG Anunoby isn’t yet public, but the Hoosiers offered a brief update Thursday.
“OG sustained a knee injury this past Wednesday night’s game against Penn State and is in the midst of ongoing medical evaluations,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said in a statement released by the school. “He will be out indefinitely.”
Indiana was wearing their commemorative jerseys that read “COURAGE” on the back, but that might be best used to describe Maryland’s Damonte Dodd, who thought it was a good idea to try to jump with Anunoby there.
The Hoosiers have lost three straight games and four of their last six, falling to 10-5 on the season and nearly out of the top 25 despite having two of the best wins that anyone in the sport has landed.
So what happened?
How did Indiana go from being a team that can beat Kansas and North Carolina to a team that can lose at home to Nebraska?
1. Their point guard play just isn’t good enough: Indiana lost Yogi Ferrell to graduation after last season, and it’s not exactly breaking news that replacing a dude as talented as Yogi is not an easy thing to do. The issue, however, isn’t simply that Indiana lost Yogi Ferrell, it’s that the guy they brought in to replace him, Josh Newkirk, simply isn’t good enough. “I think they have no point guard,” a coach that has played Indiana said of Newkirk. “He’s really limited.” Talentwise, he’s a back-up Big Ten point guard, but he’s being asked to replace an all-american and one of the most beloved Indiana Hoosiers in a generation.
That’s an issue, and it has manifested itself in a couple ways of late.
For starters, Indiana has an enormous problem with turning the ball over. On the season, they’re 308th nationally, coughing the ball up on 21.8 percent of their offensive possessions, but in these last three games, that number has ballooned to 23.1 percent. Extended over an entire season, that would slot the Hoosiers at 342nd out of 351 Division I teams. This doesn’t simply fall on Newkirk, either. Indiana doesn’t have a single player on their roster who has a higher assist rate than turnover rate. That’s not normal.
Downgrading from Ferrell to Newkirk also hurts everyone else on the roster. Ferrell made everyone around him better in ways that Newkirk can’t. Robert Johnson has more defensive attention on him. James Blackmon Jr. isn’t getting the same kind of looks from three that he got last season. O.G. Anunoby and Thomas Bryant have to create more for themselves. None of that is ideal, particularly for a team that has so many guys – Anunoby, Bryant, Blackmon – that are reliant upon other to create shots for them.
2. The defense has been really bad, too: The Hoosiers rank 77th nationally in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric despite having played eight teams that rank outside the top 230 in KenPom. That’s not good, and the last three games have been even worse. Nebraska, Louisville and Wisconsin combined to score 1.201 points-per-possession on Indiana. Wisconsin has a top ten offense this season, but Louisville is 44th nationally in offensive efficiency. Nebraska is 157th, and they put up 87 points in 72 possessions. Combined, they’re shooting 47.4 percent from three in those three games.
Some of that falls on their point guard situation. Those three teams combined for 63 points off of turnovers, feasting on “pick-six points”, live-ball turnovers that lead directly to layups at the other end. Indiana’s half-court defense hasn’t been half-bad, either; according to Synergy’s logs, they’re in the 85th percentile in half court defense and the 28th percentile in transition defense.
But some of that falls on the fact that Indiana just isn’t, and for the most part never has been, a good defensive team under Crean.
“They play 2-3 zone because they’re [getting killed] in ball-screens,” said one coach who has recently scouted Indiana. “Blackmon will not guard. His help, his close-outs, he gives up on them.”
Maybe it wasn’t such a coincidence Indiana’s season turned around when Blackmon injured his knee in 2015-16.
3. There is a distinct lack of leadership on the roster: It took a while for Ferrell to get to where he needed to be as a leader, but once he got there, he took the Indiana team over. He was the quintessential point guard, embodying every cliché of the position: He was the coach on the floor, he held teammates accountable, he drew up plays during timeouts, he spoke as much as the coach. All of it.
“He’s been a terrific leader,” Dan Dakich, an ESPN commentator and former Indiana coach that currently hosts a radio shot in Indianapolis, told me last season. “It’s his team, everyone understands that and follows that and respects his every word. Previous teammates didn’t respect him.”
Who is there to fill that role this year?
Indiana has two first round picks on their roster, but neither of them are suited to that leadership role. Anunoby is quiet and unassuming, a blue-collar forward that can do anything on a basketball court except, it seems, take over a game. Bryant is quite the opposite. “He’s emotional,” a Big Ten coach told me. “His temperament’s not great. You can psyche him out. It’s not hard to encourage him to lose his mind. He needs to grow up.”
Blackmon doesn’t seem to be cut out for the role as he’s more of a quiet dude himself. Robert Johnson represented the men’s basketball program when they unveiled the renovated Assembly Hall, but being good at public speaking doesn’t mean you inspire 20-year olds to play better on defense. Indy Star beat writer Zach Osterman said on the CBT Podcast that he thought it would have been Collin Hartman had Hartman not injured his knee.
There’s no one to pull this team together in a moment like this, a moment when coming together is really the only way to turn things around.
“They just look like their confidence is shot,” the Big Ten coach said.
4. Indiana will be fine, but maybe “fine” is all they were ever going to be: There is talent on Indiana’s roster. There are really good players – future NBA players – and guys that can be difference-makers at the college level. In the end, they are going to be just fine.
But the idea that this is a team that can consistently beat the likes of Kansas and North Carolina, a team that isn’t going to have their ups-and-downs throughout the year, is wrong.
That’s not who they are.
At the end of the day, this is an Indiana team with a flawed roster. They have no point guard, which makes them entirely reliant on making difficult threes to win games, and they have no alpha-dog, which makes it just that much more difficult to stop runs within a game and to stop losing streaks within a season.
They’ll finish in the top four or five of a Big Ten that isn’t all that intimidating. They’ll win 22 games and get to the NCAA tournament, and if they get the right draw, they might be able to get to the second weekend.
But that’s about all Indiana fans should expect from a team that used Juwan Morgan to initiate offense on critical possessions at home against Big Ten favorites Wisconsin.