BLOOMINGTON – Indiana coach Archie Miller identified two main problems with his team's performance against Northwestern tonight at Assembly Hall.
The first, turnovers, has been an issue most of the season. The Hoosiers gave the ball away 16 times tonight, the vast majority of them live-ball giveaways that helped Northwestern get out in transition. The Wildcats scored 20 points off those miscues and Indiana has now turned the ball over at least 14 times in six straight games.
The other issue, one-on-one defensive intensity, is a new problem and an extremely concerning one. Indiana has given its up-and-down offense some leeway early in the season with bulldog defensive performances, but tonight the Hoosiers were more like bull-fighters when it came to stopping drives to the basket. Northwestern, one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the country, only felt the need to attempt 19 3s because it was able to get virtually anything it wanted in the paint for most of the game. The Wildcats finished 21 of 31 from 2-point range.
Those problems added up to an ugly 74-67 loss in Indiana's Big Ten opener, a defeat that Miller implied was his team's worst of the season, even worse than the blowout loss to Texas at the Maui Invitational. At least in that game, Miller said, his team played hard throughout. That was not the case tonight.
"Disappointed for our guys," Miller said. "We didn't play well enough to win tonight. That's on me and we gotta do a better job of preparing and getting ready to play. But we're making the same mistakes over and over sometimes in terms of taking care of the ball, which really hurt us tonight. And for the first time all season, really in eight games, the defense did not do the job for us, either."
"I'm going to be honest with you, man ... today I thought we stunk on both ends of the floor. Lot of breakdowns, lot of sloppiness and it got us beat."
This game will be difficult to swallow for a Hoosiers team that went through an extremely lethargic stretch in the first half that saw them fall behind by as many as 15 points. Indiana showed admirable fight in battling back to take the lead in the second half, but then immediately gave it away again thanks to a 12-0 Northwestern run that put the Wildcats ahead for good.
Even when Indiana was rolling, early in the second half, it shot itself in the foot with turnovers. The Hoosiers forced six Wildcat giveaways in the first 5:14 of the second half as the defense stepped up its level of play about eight notches from the first 20 minutes. But at the same time, the offense turned the ball over four times and turned what should have been a 12-point run into an 8-0 spurt. The margins in the Big Ten will be so slim this season that mistakes like that just can't happen on a regular basis, but Indiana is making a habit of them. Fittingly, the Wildcats clinched the victory in the final minute when Al Durham essentially dribbled the ball off his foot, bouncing it directly to a Northwestern defender on the Hoosiers' final meaningful possession of the game.
"I'm going to take full blame for our lack of improvement the last few weeks at taking care of the ball," Miller said. "It's getting to a level where, you're not going to win in this league. ... First-half turnovers, really silly, killed us, led to a lot of points.
"It's coming from a lot of different of guys, it's not one guy doing the wrong thing," Miller added. "We just have a slew of inopportune plays that we're trying to stay away from. A lot of it is going to come down to being smarter in transition. ... We're too sloppy right now. We have too many plays that aren't going to work for us going forward. We can't turn the ball over 16 times at home, we're not that good."
Miller said he is considering having Indiana slow the ball down on offense, which could potentially alleviate turnover issues and keep the Hoosiers from getting fatigued. Indiana got tired late in this game, in Miller's view, because not enough players off the bench are contributing enough to warrant significant minutes. Going down-tempo is one way to fix that problem partially, but it also flies in the face of the transition offense the Hoosiers worked so hard to implement in the offseason. Frankly, Indiana needs more from players like Khristian Lander, Jerome Hunter and even Anthony Leal and Jordan Geronimo. The bench needs to get longer or the Hoosiers will lose a lot of games because they're tired late. Trayce Jackson-Davis, Armaan Franklin and Al Durham all played 36 minutes tonight. Indiana needs to find a way to get those guys a break that doesn't involve the Hoosiers giving up eight quick points.
"I felt like fatigue played a factor," Miller said. "We're going to have to bite the bullet here and get a little deeper. We're going to have to play more guys to be able to sustain the depth we're going to need throughout the course of the season defensively. We had some offensive possessions where I thought (the fatigue) showed. Just some finishes around the basket, some shot selection that just didn't look good."
Fatigue doesn't account for why Indiana struggled so much on defense in the first half, however. The Wildcats made 12 of their first 16 2-point attempts and got way too many easy baskets at the rim with little resistance. Indiana has hung its hat on defense this season, but tonight, Miller was extremely disappointed in his team's performance. That's by far the most concerning aspect of this game for Indiana long-term.
"No question, the biggest point of the game was being able to guard one-on-one," the fourth-year coach said. "At the end of the day, our team has guarded a lot of teams this year and we're able to hold our own off the dribble. Our team is built that way and we've done a pretty good job of it all season long. ... (Tonight) was not very good. ... We were too spread out, we weren't as tight as we normally are."
Nor is there a lot of time to fix the issues. Indiana has one day of practice and then travels to Champaign on Christmas, where it will face No. 18 Illinois on Saturday. There is no let-up in this Big Ten schedule and the Hoosiers will have to fix what ails them quickly, or they'll find themselves in a hole out of which it won't be easy to climb.