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Three Things: Indiana Men’s Basketball Regular Season Edition

2021 Crossroads Classic - Notre Dame v Indiana Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Indiana wrapped up its regular season with a one point loss in Mackey Arena to No. 8 Purdue, once again in heartbreaking fashion. The Hoosiers finish the season 18-12 (9-11 in Big Ten Play) and will enter the Big Ten Tournament as the ninth seed, facing off against eight seed Michigan this Thursday afternoon. Somehow, Indiana still has a shot at the NCAA tournament, according to 20 of the bracketologists on Bracketmatrix, but it’ll take at least a victory over the Wolverines for this to be a real possibility.

Since Thursday’s game could be the last of the season, I figured I’d get a little season recap edition of Three Things up now, so my thoughts aren’t clouded by whatever happens in Indianapolis this week.

Here’s Three Things:

Indiana took a step forward this year

At this point last year, Indiana was gearing up for a fairly meaningless matchup with Rutgers since the 12-win Archie Miller squad was very clearly not a tournament team. Trayce’s departure was imminent and it didn’t come as a surprise later when Armaan Franklin, Al Durham, Race Thompson, and Jordan Geronimo all entered the transfer portal. Things were Bad for Indiana men’s basketball.

Regardless of whether this season ends with an NCAA tournament appearance or not, Mike Woodson came in and made the program better. I’ve written about it elsewhere, but even before the season started, Mike Woodson had elevated Indiana’s recruiting level and made Bloomington an exciting place to play again.

On the court this season, Indiana had the 20th most efficient defense, per Kenpom. Archie Miller’s best defense came in at 26th in 2020, but had regressed to 43rd in his mythical fourth season with the pack-line. This year’s defense finished with the 10th best opponent 2-point FG%, and 14th best block percentage in the country.

While the offense had mixed results, Indiana did show marginal improvement from 3-point distance and played with a much better tempo, which had been two areas that Miller’s offenses persistently struggled with. The improved tempo in particular is an encouraging sign of good things to come on that end once Woodson has a roster of his players.

Injuries were big

During this recent rough patch, in which Indiana has lost seven of its last nine games, four of the losses came by five points or fewer. In each of those four close losses, Indiana was without at least one player who averaged five points due to injury. Trey Galloway, who averages 6.1 points per game and usually gives the Hoosiers a big energy boost off the bench, hasn’t played since March 15. Rob Phinisee, who averages 5.1 points per game and has demonstrated the ability to single handedly win games for Indiana, missed more than a month between January 26th and February 27th. Despite playing in the recent losses to Purdue and Rutgers, Rob was clearly not 100% healthy and had his minutes limited significantly.

Indiana was not going to have a big margin for error in conference play this year, with over half of the Big Ten in the top 50 and four teams finishing in the AP top 25. Missing two crucial back court pieces during the most important stretch of the season could have been too much for this group to overcome in their quest to get back into the NCAA Tournament.

Plenty of work to do

As one might expect, the transition to a new coaching staff has been imperfect at points. Message-board poisoned critics have taken these hiccups as evidence that Woodson is no better than any of his predecessors as a college coach (I even saw one post that said Woodson should step down for the good of the program if Tamar Bates or Jordan Geronimo transfer), which is surely not the case. That said, there are some areas where the Hoosiers will need to improve under Mike Woodson to avoid being a bubble team in perpetuity.

Free throws continued to plague this team, and even the modest improvement from 66.5% last year to 69.2% this year leaves Indiana around the bottom 25% of Division I teams. The Hoosiers could also stand to take more 3-pointers, which only accounted for 26% of the team’s points this year, good for 305th in the country. Improving in these areas in particular will go a long way in Mike Woodson’s offensive overhaul of the program but could require a bit of a talent upgrade. Only three of the ten main rotation players (who get 10+ minutes per game) shoot over 35% from deep, and none have demonstrated the ability to consistently create their own shot.

Indiana has shown flashes of its potential under Woodson a few times this year, like the 68-55 victory over Maryland in College Park or when it upset Purdue for the first time in four seasons this January. If the Hoosiers can maintain this level of play in the Big Ten Tournament, they should have a shot at an NCAA tournament berth. Regardless, this program is in a better place than it was a year ago and we should not take that for granted.