BLOOMINGTON – One step forward, one step back.
Indiana failed to build on Thursday's potentially galvanizing victory over No. 4 Iowa and turned in a lackluster performance in just about every area except 3-point shooting,. It was a deflating 74-70 loss at Assembly Hall today at the hands of a Rutgers team that had dropped five straight.
Coach Archie Miller defended his team after the game, praising its effort and pointing out, correctly, that Rutgers is a talented team that was bound to break out of its rut eventually.
"I’m disappointed for our guys," Miller said. "Like I told them after the game, I’m not disappointed in the results, I’m disappointed for them. I think the attitude, work ethic and the togetherness has been as good as its ever been here (since before the Iowa game).
"Every single game in this league requires you to play, not only hard and tough and all that stuff, smart, but you have to play well too. You have to play well to be in these games. Rutgers is a great team and they have had a great season. ... They are a bona fide big-time team, just like Iowa was."
It's encouraging that Indiana played hard for a second straight game, but the inconsistency on defense continues to be the biggest factor holding this team back from reaching its potential. The Hoosiers have put together some extremely good defensive performances this season, including a dominant one against Iowa, but today lapsed back into some poor habits. They got beaten consistently off the dribble, didn't communicate as well as they needed to and consequently missed far too many rotations. They've proven they can play better than this, but the inability to do so for even two or three games in a row is the defining story of this season so far.
In more encouraging news, Indiana seems to be figuring things out from beyond the arc. The Hoosiers went a blistering 10 for 16 from deep today and four players made at least two, including freshman Khristian Lander, who came into the game shooting just 27% from long distance. In a manner that was almost entirely unprecedented in the Archie Miller Era – except for a couple of games in recent years in which Devonte Green took over with a string of 3s – Indiana largely overcame poor defense and little interior scoring with strong outside shooting. Usually it's the other way around. If Indiana is finally starting to unlock its shooting potential (it has shot the ball well from 3-point range in three of the last four games), that raises the ceiling of this offense significantly.
"Everyone says we can’t shoot and we end up going 10-of-16 from three," Miller said. "If we make 10 threes in the game that is usually pretty good."
Unfortunately, it wasn't enough in this game, because of Rutgers' ability to get to the rim on offense and its ability to shut down Trayce Jackson-Davis on defense. The Hoosiers' star sophomore was bottled up all afternoon, going only 4 of 10 from the field and having his shot blocked at least three times by my count. There was just nowhere for him to go in the lane many times and even when he did get position, Indiana had a tough time feeding the post without Rutgers getting a hand on the ball and forcing the 2019 Indiana Mr. Basketball to catch it further from the hoop than he wanted. Myles Johnson, the 6-foot-11 Rutgers center, bothered Jackson-Davis all afternoon and that was probably the game's defining matchup. The Center Grove product's struggles were a microcosm of Indiana's issues scoring from inside the arc – the Hoosiers shot just 35% on 2-point shots, a stark contrast to their 3-point shooting numbers.
"I think Trayce probably left four or five shot attempts that you would take over again," Miller said. "I don’t think we got him the ball enough tonight. I don’t think he did a good job of being physical around the basket. ... Trayce didn’t have his best offensive performance in and around the rim. Our guards didn’t finish. The ones that they had good looks they didn’t finish."
The good news for Indiana is that, just as it did prior to the matchup against Iowa, it has a long time before its next game to get back to basics. The Hoosiers were supposed to play Michigan in Ann Arbor next Saturday, but that game will be postponed after the Wolverines shut down their entire athletic department for two weeks Saturday following an outbreak of a new, more contagious strain of coronavirus. That means the Hoosiers' next scheduled game is Feb. 2 at home against Illinois. There is a chance, however, that the Big Ten tries to schedule another contest for IU during that long layoff as the conference juggles the schedule in an effort to get as many games played as possible. Miller said his team will be ready if a game is added to the schedule on short notice and it will focus on putting the loss to the Scarlet Knights behind it as quickly as it tried to put the win over Iowa away.
"This is one of 20, like the Iowa game was," the fourth-year coach said. "Like I told them after the Iowa game, everyone is going to talk about how great it was, but the bottom line is Rutgers is just as good and the next one is going to be just as good and they all count the same.
"I just want our guys to to believe in how much room we continue to have to grow. You can see it in our bench. You can see it in our young guys coming in. They are playing better. ... We are getting a lot of contribution, we just need to get a little more consistency."