The play of Jordan Hulls has been a key for Indiana this season. - USA TODAY Sports
What we can learn from the Hoosiers' poor performances
No matter how you slice it, Indiana is one of the best teams in college basketball.
The Hoosiers came out on top of the country's premier conference. They had the best conference road record (7-2) of any team in a BCS league, including a trio of road wins -- Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State -- that are among the most impressive victories by any team in America this season. They have two of the nation's best players in Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo, and they're extremely tough to beat on any given night.
Still, the Hoosiers aren't without flaws. No team is.
Indiana lost six games this season, all of which came against teams that, on paper, don't have near the talent Indiana does.
I went back and broke down five of their six losses, focusing on the games where Indiana played poorly and looking for some common themes. I left out the Illinois loss because it is a complete outlier in every way. Indiana actually played pretty darn well, shooting 50 percent from the field, 53 percent from 3 and 93 percent from the free throw line. (How'd Indiana lose that game?!)
Here's what I found from the losses to Wisconsin (twice, ugh), Minnesota, Butler and Ohio State:
- Supporting actors
Christian Watford is usually the player Indiana fans point to as the mercurial guy. It's become trendy to say "When Watford plays well, Indiana doesn't lose." Well, some of that is true. Watford has had bad games in some of the Hoosiers' defeats, but there's a fellow teammate who also has struggled in Indiana's losses: Jordan Hulls.
Oladipo and Zeller are the constants. We know, for the most part, what they're going to produce every night. But the offensive production of Watford and Hulls is a key component to Indiana's winning recipe.
Together, the senior duo averages 22.6 points on 44 percent shooting. In losses, Watford and Hulls combine to shoot 37 percent and score just 17.3 points. Five points may not seem like a big deal, but it's significant when you think about all of Indiana's close games this year.
Hulls lit Minnesota up for 17 points in the loss at the barn. Remove that game and he averages a mere 7.2 points in Indiana's losses.
If Hulls isn't knocking down shots and drawing attention from the opposition's defense, I don't see where he contributes. His defense, while better, is still subpar, and he doesn't do much on the glass.
Hulls is a shooter, plain and simple, and Indiana needs him to hit shots.
- Change of pace
Indiana like to run. And run. And run.
The Hoosiers -- second in the nation at 117.7 points per 100 possessions -- want to play a free-flowing, up-and-down affair. It makes sense. When you're the better team, lengthen the game (more possessions), and, typically, the outcome will fall in your favor. Honestly, I'm not sure there's a team in the country who can beat Indiana in a fast-paced affair.
So most teams don't try it.
Indiana has had three games where I'd say they truly didn't play well offensively -- both defeats against Wisconsin and the Senior Night loss to Ohio State. In those contests, the opposition shut down Indiana's transition game and forced the Hoosiers to execute in the halfcourt.
Indiana couldn't do it. The Hoosiers, a team that shoots 48 percent, hit just 38 percent of their shots in those three losses.
Some of that comes down to just missing shots, but a large part of it is that Indiana doesn't like playing at that pace. The Hoosiers looked downright uncomfortable in those games, where possessions are more precious. Indiana is a thoroughbred and not meant to be caged.
The slower pace also limits Indiana's trip to the free throw line. Getting to the stripe is one of the Hoosiers' best offensive qualities, and they shoot 25 freebies per game, hitting 75 percent. Indiana attempted just 15.3 free throws in the games against Wisconsin and Ohio State.
The player most affected by the slower tempo is undoubtedly Hulls. Grouping in the Butler contest, another grind-it-out affair, with the the trio of aforementioned losses, Hulls shot just 12 for 38 (38 percent) in those games, including a measly 3 for 15 from beyond the arc.
That's from a guy who's hitting 45 percent of his shots and 46 percent of his 3-point tries.
Far from the most athletic guy around, Hulls struggles creating his own shot. It's much easier for a defender to keep track of him in the halfcourt. Much of Hulls' open looks come from getting lost in transition. Can't you just picture Kevin Ferrell firing a cross-court pass to a trailing Hulls? Or Hulls dribbling in to a deep 3-pointer on the break?
When pinned down in the halfcourt, Indiana becomes very reliant on Oladipo as a creator of offense, both for himself and others.
- Board to death
Three of Indiana's poor performances are due to a frustratingly slow pace, and the other two are all about rebounding.
Against Butler and Minnesota, Indiana was manhandled by big, physical front lines. Andrew Smith and Roosevelt Jones were monsters for the Bulldogs, and Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams of Minnesota ate Indiana alive on the glass.
The Hoosiers were outrebounded by an average of 9.5 boards in those two losses. The real damage came on second-chance points, as Indiana gave up 17 offensive rebounds to both Butler and Minnesota.
The Gophers also took advantage of their backcourt size. With two of their three starting guards (Austin Hollins and Joe Coleman) standing 6-foot-4, Indiana had a major matchup problem, forcing Hulls or Ferrell to defend a much bigger player. Hollins, predictably so, snagged four offensive rebounds.
Indiana, especially Zeller, really struggled with the physicality of Minnesota and Butler.
Zeller made just four baskets against Butler and two versus Minnesota. Wisconsin's Jared Berggren, another physical player, gave him fits in the Big Ten Tournament matchup, as well, holding him to four buckets, two of which came on putbacks.
He has a tough time creating offense when being guarded by a big, strong defenders, often times resorting to shooting the ball straight in to their arms -- literally throwing his arms straight in to the defender's and hoping for a whistle.
- What this means
Indiana is really, really good. Yes, the Hoosiers got beat up on the glass in a couple games, and, yes, they seemed out of whack against Wisconsin and Ohio State.
Guess what? Ohio State and Wisconsin do that to a lot of people. They're two of the best defensive teams in the nation, by any metric. There are only a small, small number of teams capable of frustrating Indiana like that. And Indiana already beat some of them -- Ohio State, Michigan State (twice) and Georgetown, all three of which are among Pomeroy's top defensive squads.
As for rebounding, it is typically a strength for Indiana. It was a huge key in winning at Michigan as the Hoosiers pulled down 23 of their own missed shots. But, for some reason, Indiana didn't perform as well on the glass against Butler and Minnesota.
These guys are 19- to 22-year-old kids. Those aren't among the most consistent people on the planet. Indiana usually plays well, and is going to be one of the toughest outs in this tournament, but the Hoosiers aren't immune to a bad night.
Still, in what I categorized as their five poor performances of the season, Indiana lost those games by an average of 6.4 points -- and all of the losses were to good teams (four vs. teams in Pomeroy's top 23).
This Indiana team is as good as anyone in the country, and it has as good of a chance to win it all as any Indiana team will have for a long time.