After 29 games, what more have we really learned about this Indiana basketball team that we didn't know before the season started? Yes, this team can shoot. Yes, this team doesn't have much height. Yes, this team may not be best on the defensive side of the ball. And when any or all of these factors aren't clicking, the Hoosiers struggle. Especially when they're outside of Assembly Hall.
We know all these things. Yet we are always shocked when the Hoosiers struggle so blatantly, regardless of the opponent's record. But maybe we shouldn't be.
A case in point came in the loss to Northwestern last night. Yes, the Wildcats came into yesterday with a three-game win streak, but for all intents and purposes, this game was penciled in as a win on even the most pessimistic fans' schedules. However, in a dreadful second-half effort, the Hoosiers went for over 10 minutes of playing time without a single point. With four minutes remaining in the game, the Hoosiers had only picked up eight points in the entire second half. Indiana tried to mount a furious comeback at the end, scoring 19 points in the game's waning moments, but by then Northwestern's damage had been done.
Starting at the top, Tom Crean and the coaching staff has to shoulder some of the blame for this loss. During the second-half drought, the Hoosiers did not use a timeout until 4:06 remained on the game clock. Crean left Welsh-Ryan Arena with one more timeout in his pocket, and used one with nine seconds to go when IU was down by seven. In addition, if Indiana made any halftime adjustments, these were not evident during the second half, as Northwestern's adjustments stymied the Hoosiers. When the Wildcats controlled the tempo and played to their own strengths, Indiana struggled to keep up. But you already knew that about the Hoosiers.
But blaming this game entirely on the staff is also unfair. For one, the defensive effort just wasn't there all night, especially in the first half. Alex Olah, whose feet never seemed to leave the ground, dominated the paint for Northwestern all night, finishing with 17 points and 11 rebounds. In addition, Tre Demps and Vic Law kept converting for most of the night. Together, the three players combined for 54 of Northwestern's 72 points. In total, the Wildcats had a 59.1% effective field goal rate, attempting 14 fewer shots than IU. Missed assignments, mismatches, and giving up open looks troubled Indiana on defense all night. But you already knew that about the Hoosiers.
On offense, the Hoosiers started off well, and it seemed like it would only be a matter of time until Northwestern would be out of breath. However, this never really happened, and instead it was Indiana who ended up looking gassed. Sure, James Blackmon, Jr. had an off-night shooting, but there were many points that ended up being left on the table. The 3-for-17 second-half three-point shooting hurt Indiana, but going 7-for-16 from the free throw line was even more damaging. In addition, the Hoosiers missed quite a few opportunities from point blank right below the bucket, and overall made only 34.4% of their two-point shots, compared to Northwestern's 58.6%. When Indiana goes cold and isn't doing the little things on offense, this team gets out of sync. But you already knew that about the Hoosiers.
In addition to the disappointment of this loss, it is also damaging in terms of the postseason. At this point, the chances of IU receiving a double-bye to the B1G tournament are very slim. And while the Hoosiers are still not in danger of missing the NCAA tournament, this loss takes them from a lock to being back on the bubble. One loss isn't terrible in the scheme of things, but one sub-100 RPI loss, the first of Indiana's season, definitely is. At this point, the best the Hoosiers can likely hope for is an 8-seed, barring a surprise B1G tourney run.
The Hoosiers get almost a full week off from now until their next game, at home against Iowa, who also happens to be in the thick of the bubble contention as well. How the Hoosiers respond remains to be seen, but if Indiana comes out with another flat effort like they did tonight, then the season may be over a lot sooner than we expected about a month ago.
In the end, last night's game taught us nothing new about the 2014-15 Indiana Hoosiers. Unlike a maturing Northwestern team that at one point had lost 10 straight games, Indiana seems like the same team that it was at the beginning of the year. Now, I am obviously still rooting for this Indiana team, because not only is it my alma mater, but when these Hoosiers are on their game, they're incredibly fun to watch, and can cause matchup issues of their own. But even if they don't escape the first round, at least an NCAA berth would be progress for the Hoosiers. And that's important. Because right now, with IU's losses to familiar culprits, the struggles on the road, and the late-season mishaps, it's hard to say that Indiana has yet to improve on the status quo of what was last year's disappointing end.
So surprise us for the better, Hoosiers. It's time we learned something new about this team, because we're running out of chances to do so.