CHAMPAIGN, Illinois – It's the same old story for Indiana.
During Archie Miller's four seasons as head coach, the Hoosiers have steadily improved on defense and are now, if not an elite group on that end of the floor, at least a very good one. Indiana is the No. 10 team in the country in defensive efficiency, per KenPom.com.
As much as Indiana has gotten better on defense, however, it has been stubbornly unable to improve into even a consistently average offensive team. Consistently average on offense would win a lot of games with the way the Hoosiers are playing defense this season, but well into Year 4 of the Miller Era, Indiana is a team that is mostly bland on offense, with intermittent spells of Antarctica-cold shooting.
Indiana had that kind of offensive performance today against No. 18 Illinois, shooting just 40% from the field and twice going more than four minutes without a field goal. Leading scorer Trayce Jackson-Davis missed half a dozen shots in the lane and finished 3 for 13 for a season-low 11 points. That was how the Hoosiers wasted a terrific defensive performance against one of the most explosive teams in the country and lost to the Illini 69-60 to fall to 0-2 in Big Ten play.
"You tip your hat to (Illinois)," Miller said of the loss. "Our guys competed. We gotta bag this one up and we gotta get back home and get back in the race Wednesday, be ready to go against a good Penn State team."
Miller seemed generally pleased with his team's performance, pointing out that it cut its turnovers in half, from 16 in a loss to Northwestern on Wednesday to just eight against the Illini today. But that's the point, isn't it? Indiana turned the ball over only eight times, played good defense and still lost. You can't waste those types of performances and expect to be successful in the Big Ten. If you don't win when you defend that well, you're probably not going to win many games, period. Indiana has now let two winnable games get away its first two times out in conference play because of a lack of offensive firepower at the end of games.
"We had some guys step up and make some shots," Miller said. "We also had a couple open ones that didn't go down. ... It's a game of makes and misses, it really is. They made theirs, made some big ones. We didn't. Bottom line is, I'm proud of our effort level in terms of our turnovers. That's how we have to play. If we have 10 or less turnovers, we'll have a chance in every game because we'll keep working on defense.
"Definitely gotta get some more confidence with some guys, we have to be able to convert a little better. But today was a positive in terms of taking care of the ball."
It was a positive in that sense, but it was less so in other areas of the offense. There was far too much standing around at times in what is supposed to be a "motion" offense and the Hoosiers only shot nine free throws (to 18 for Illinois), despite Illinois opponents averaging 20 foul shots coming into the game.
Jackson-Davis's performance was particularly frustrating because he seemed like he was getting good shots in the first half, but they just didn't fall as he tried to maneuver around 7-foot Kofi Cockburn. In the second half, the Hoosiers really stopped going to him at all – he had just three points on five shots after halftime – and Armaan Franklin had to pick up the slack with outside shooting. This felt like a game where Jackson-Davis, an NBA lottery and All-American hopeful, needed to really impose his will and at least get some shots off against Cockburn. Of course, that's easier said than done, but Indiana only has two players who can create their own offense right now and Jackson-Davis is one of them. The Hoosiers aren't going to win many games when he isn't being aggressive and looking for his own shot.
The main issue for Indiana is that the offense isn't really improving. Jackson-Davis is obviously outstanding and Franklin has been a pleasant surprise, but everyone else is underwhelming, inexperienced or inconsistent. That's not enough in the Big Ten, no matter how good your defense is. Until Indiana finds a reliable third scoring option, it's going to lose more games than it wins. Can it be Race Thompson? Rob Phinisee? Al Durham? Trey Galloway? Someone needs to step up. Nine games into the season, this team feels almost like a carbon copy of last year's squad, with Franklin's production subbed in for Devonte Green's. Is that enough to make the NCAA Tournament in the toughest conference in the country? It's probably a 50-50 proposition at best. Something needs to change in a hurry for the Hoosiers.