Dec. 7 was the wake-up call. Indiana was run out of the Kohl Center from the tip, losing by 20 in the Big Ten opener.
So, what was this past effort against Maryland? Another wake-up call? No. This game was a harsh reminder of the flaws of the 2019-20 Hoosiers. It’s a reminder this team doesn’t have a go-to scorer. It’s a reminder this team will go through long stretches of inept offense. It’s a reminder Indiana isn’t at the level of the top teams in the conference.
It’s time to go back to the basics as Indiana (11-3, 1-2) welcomes Northwestern (5-8, 0-3) to Assembly Hall on Wednesday.
Archie Miller was pleased, for the most part, with their defensive effort Saturday. Before the crazy run around the 10-minute mark, Indiana was holding Maryland in check offensively. But once the bandages came off offensively, that led to easy Maryland buckets.
So what are the basics? Well, it starts defensively, because that’s where Miller knows this team has to win.
Indiana won’t win games scoring 80 points. Since the big win over Florida State, Indiana hasn’t scored more than 64 points in any game other than the overtime thriller against Nebraska. They knocked off UConn by holding the Huskies to 54 points and 41 percent shooting. Against Notre Dame, they held the Irish to 60 points and other than the crazy hot stretch to finish the game, Indiana held the Irish shooters in check.
That’s how Indiana will have to win games. They won’t win shootouts. They won’t win 3-point shooting contests. They can win ugly, sloppy, low-scoring battles.
“We played hard for the most part,” Miller said after the Maryland loss. “Our defense held in there.”
The defense did hold in against Maryland. They held the Terrapins to 28 percent shooting in the first half. The screws came loose in the second half, but for about 30 minutes, Indiana did a great job defensively against an offensively powered Maryland team.
“We’ve gone through some tough stretches here offensively, but it didn’t impact our defense for a good portion of the game,” Miller said.
Northwestern will provide Indiana a chance to make a statement defensively. The Wildcats are 273rd in the country in scoring offense, averaging 67.5 points per game. They’re 300th in 3-point attempts and 260th in 3-point percentage (31.5 percent).
It starts with defense. But that’s not Indiana’s biggest issue. Indiana will only go as far as its backcourt, a group of players that has really struggled to be consistent this season.
Devonte Green scored 30 against Florida State, but was absent in the loss to Wisconsin. He couldn’t find the basket for 35 minutes against Maryland, then couldn’t miss when it didn’t matter late.
Al Durham got off to a great start this season, but since conference play began, he’s been quiet and hasn’t been able to get open looks from three. Since the Nebraska game, Durham is 0-for-4 from three. That’s not enough attempts for a guy who shoots 37 percent from beyond the arc.
Rob Phinisee has been in and out of the lineup all season with injuries, but when he’s in the lineup, he makes Indiana better. However, he’s been relatively quiet in the past few games. Since a great game against Nebraska in his return to the lineup, Phinisee has scored just seven points in three games and has four assists to five turnovers.
Finally, Armaan Franklin has had his moments. He hit the biggest shot of the season against Notre Dame. He has showed off his solid midrange game the past few games, but overall, he’s shooting 35 percent from the field and 21 percent from the 3-point line.
“Our backcourt has to be able to create more off the dribble,” Miller said. “They have to be able to get assists.”
The numbers from the backcourt won’t get the job done for Indiana. Someone has to step up and score. Someone has to step up and facilitate. Someone has to step up and lead.
Northwestern is holding opponents to 31.4 percent from long range. They’re also holding opponents to 42.2 percent from the field. In its three Big Ten games, Northwestern is holding opponents to 30.6 percent from three. Indiana will likely have to attack inside to score on the Wildcats.
“The ball’s not going in the basket,” Miller said. “Whether it’s a layup, whether it’s a free throw or whether it’s a wide-open shot. At some point we have to be able to put it in the basket. We have enough guys who can do that.”
Miller puts it best. The ball isn’t going in the basket. There are four-to-five-minute spans where Indiana can’t miss and scores well,
both inside and out. The more concerning minutes are the longer stretches without baskets and without good looks.
Against Maryland, Indiana cut the deficit to three, 36-33, with 14:17 to play. After that, Maryland went on a 33-8 run in the next 10 minutes and ran away from Indiana. That just can’t happen if you want to win in the Big Ten.
Miller talked about a few keys to turning this around offensively. First, Indiana has to get to the line and hit free throws. Indiana is first in the NCAA in free-throw attempts per game (26.5). Against Maryland, they went to the line 18 times. The issue is the makes. The Hoosiers shot 11-for-18 from the line against Maryland and 9-for-18 against Arkansas. They’re shooting 68.7 percent from the stripe this season.
Secondly, Miller wants to be able to finish through contact better. The Big Ten is a physical league and on the road, you don’t get the benefit of the doubt down low. Trayce Jackson-Davis faced some real, Big-Ten length and struggled finding openings down low.
Northwestern has five players averaging 10 points or more per game, two of which are 6-foot-10, Pete Nance (brother of Larry Nance Jr. of the Los Angeles Lakers) and Ryan Young.
Overall, Indiana is still 11-3 and has plenty of opportunities to turn this around. They have he toughest remaining schedule in the country, according to BPI. Yes, that’s not great for a young team, but it’s also more opportunities to get marquee, resume-building wins.
The Hoosiers and Wildcats square off at 7 p.m. Wednesday on Big Ten Network.