Indiana’s season is on the brink.
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.