A basketball season can change dramatically over the course of a week. Less than seven days ago, IU was sitting at 9-2, with wins over less than stellar competition but with no bad losses. The next three games presented opportunities–Northern Iowa, New Mexico/Colorado, and Penn State all were in the Pomeroy top 100--but IU would be and was favored in all of the games. I expected IU to drop at least one of those games, but I’m stunned, and not in a good way, that IU is now sitting at 9-5/0-1 and has lost its most winnable Big Ten game. As I noted in my preview, I thought playing Penn State so early wasn’t necessarily the best thing for IU, because this team isn’t in a good place right now. Unfortunately, the game followed the same pattern as the UNI and Colorado games: IU spotted the other team a huge lead thanks to lackidaisical defense, stormed back, but couldn’t close the deal.
I don’t have any great insight as to the situation. This is a young and flawed team. We lack a true post player of any size. We are struggling defensively. Our best player from last year has been reduced by injury to a sixth man, although Maurice Creek’s performance off the bench last night was encouraging. Christian Watford, who has been very good at times this season, was invisible last night. The problem in all three of IU's consecutive losses has been on the defensive end. Once again, IU allowed its opponent to jump out to a huge lead. Nine minutes into the game, Penn State, thanks mostly to a rash of uncontested three pointers by David Jackson, had its largest lead of the game, 14. To the Hoosiers credit, they have shown no quit in the last three games. As against Northern Iowa and Colorado, IU came back, and this time took the lead on a Maurice Creek runner with 8:45 remaining. That means that IU managed to outscore Penn State by 15 in roughly the middle 10 minutes of the game, but Penn State went on a 22-12 run to finish the game, and that was that. Unfortunately, in the second half, Talor Battle caught fire, finally hitting three 3-pointers. Most or all of those makes were well-guarded, but Battle is a great shooter from whom a 25-footer with a hand in his face seems as effortless as a layup. Had IU come out of the gate playing better defense, and preventing Jackson from having his best shooting night of the year, the outcome might have been different.
I think that is what has surprised me the most about the last two games. During last night's pregame radio show, Tom Crean mentioned the lack of hands-up, aggressive defense during the runs that allowed UNI and Colorado to control and eventually win the games in Las Vegas. If he mentioned it on the radio show, I'm sure it was a point of emphasis in practice and preparation. Yet, the game played out basically as the previous two did.
- Victor Oladipo started the game and probably will continue to start. He scored 14 points, shot 5-9 from the field, had 4 rebounds and three steals.
- Verdell Jones III had his best offensive performance of the season, scoring 15 points on 5-12 from the field and 3-3 from behind the arc (all three were open, rather than forced). He had 3 assists and 1 turnover.
- Jordan Hulls was very aggressive offensively and it paid off: 13 points, 3-4 from behind the arc, 4 assists, 1 turnover.
- As noted above, Watford was a non-entity, and against one of the least imposing teams IU will play from here on out.
- Creek played well off the bench, scoring 6 points on 3-8 from the field. He was 0-5 from behind the arc, but played well near the end of IU's comeback.
- Derek Elston managed only 3 points on 1-6 from the field and 3 rebounds in 25 minutes.
What is particularly sad about this game is that IU's backcourt offensive woes changed dramatically. Unfortunately, the frontcourt failed to show up, as did the entire team defensively for the first 10 minutes of the game. I'm not sure where this team goes from here. IU next hosts Ohio State, a team that has been utterly dominant. This might be the most hopeless game in the history of Assembly Hall. Pomeroy has the Buckeyes as 14 point favorites, and nothing the Hoosiers have shown suggests an ability to keep it that close. After that IU faces Minnesota and Northwestern on the road. Those games would not be hopeless at home, but either would be a difficult road win. IU's next solidly winnable game is the January 15 home game against Michigan, but IU's recent play won't be good enough to beat anyone in the Big Ten.
I'm not on the ledge or anything, nor do I have any long-term doubts about Crean's fitness for the job. Unfortunately, last night's game suggests that it's going to take some more time. Postseason play went from a question mark to a pipe dream last night.