BLOOMINGTON – Northwestern can play some ball, folks.
That was obvious Sunday when the Wildcats knocked off No. 4 Michigan State, but they have reinforced the point with a terrific first-half performance against Indiana tonight. Northwestern's bench has been the most energetic spot in the arena tonight, yelling over every Indiana offensive possession and jumping up and down like a No. 16 seed trying to pull an upset in an NCAA Tournament game after every basket. The Hoosiers been sloppy with the ball, they've missed too many free throws and they have not quite matched the Cats' energy. As a result, the hosts trail at halftime 37-28.
One of the biggest issues in the opening half for Indiana has been one that has plagued it all season: rebounding. The Wildcats are out-rebounding the Hoosiers 16-13 and have a 6-3 advantage in second-chance points. Part of that is an energy problem – Northwestern has had more of it – but the Hoosiers just aren't a particularly good rebounding team outside of Trayce Jackson-Davis and Race Thompson. IU really needs Joey Brunk back sooner rather than later, but he's missing his eighth straight game tonight with a bad back.
Speaking of Jackson-Davis, Indiana's offense is abysmal without him. Jackson-Davis commands so much attention when the Hoosiers have the ball that he creates open shots for his teammates by his mere presence. Northwestern did a very good job of battling to keep the 2019 Indiana Mr. Basketball out of post position, but the Wildcats had to focus so much attention on him that Indiana's offense was decent when he was on the floor anyway. Midway through the first half, however, Jackson-Davis went to the bench for a short rest and the IU attack looked lost. No one requires anywhere close to the same amount of respect the sophomore big man gets and Indiana didn't well enough to get open shots when he left the court. With him on the bench for just 2:07, the Wildcats went on an 8-0 run to turn a four-point advantage into a 12-point cushion. Indiana needs to find a way for Jackson-Davis to get some rest, but right now there is none. That's not to mention that TJD hasn't touched the ball enough when he has been on the floor. Giving your best player the ball is Offense 101 and Indiana isn't doing it as much as it should. In no way should he have only five shots in a half as he did in the first half tonight.
Meanwhile, the Hoosiers' defense has just not been tough enough. Much like the first half against Butler, Indiana just wasn't tough enough in the lane and the Wildcats got far too many easy baskets. The Wildcats had a 18-14 advantage in points in the paint and shot 56% from the field, a subpar number for Indiana, even against what seems to be an elite offense. It hasn't helped that the Cats have nine points off seven Indiana turnovers, most of which have been of the live-ball variety.
The Big Ten is a long grind and one half doesn't say much about how the Hoosiers will handle the conference's physicality, but the early returns were not positive. Indiana showed some life with a 7-0 run late in the half to get the score within double digits, but far more offensive consistency is needed. Who's going to give Jackson-Davis some help?