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Indiana men’s basketball: What went wrong against Auburn

A few things happened last weekend, let’s go through it.

NCAA Basketball: Empire Classic-Connecticut at Indiana Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Indiana played its worst game in years against Auburn on Saturday in Atlanta.

The program has sought out these high-profile nonconference matchups since Mike Woodson’s arrival in Bloomington. None have resulted in wins so far.

Games like that serve as a bit of a measuring stick, how the team stacks up against other big brands or high-level competition. Last year’s losses against Kansas and Arizona were awful in the moment but Indiana still ended up with a 4-seed in the NCAA tournament and second place Big Ten finish.

At some point these games have to turn into wins. For now, we can at the very least form some takeaways based on what we learned.

Indiana’s guard play leaves much to be desired

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Indiana Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Indiana has been without starting point guard Xavier Johnson since the second half of the Harvard game in Indianapolis. They’ve gone 3-1 since if you include that matchup with the Crimson.

No opponent really exposed the gulf in backcourt play quite like Auburn.

The list of reliable guards is short without Johnson. Galloway has been inconsistent on the offensive end and Cupps is a true freshman finding his way in the college game. Outside of those two, the options are C.J. Gunn and Anthony Leal.

Gunn plays with a high motor and has shined some on the defensive end. Offense is a different story. He has yet to find his shot, hasn’t been able to distribute with just three assists on the season thus far and has made a few questionable decisions with the ball in his hands.

The defense is valuable without a doubt, but the offense just isn’t there with Gunn.

Leal is earning more minutes than ever under Woodson and has value for all the years he’s spent with the program and system. He knows where he and his teammates need to be on the floor but, like Gunn, hasn’t been able to contribute much on offense.

There’s a theme here: Indiana just isn’t getting points from its backcourt.

Without Johnson, Galloway has to become the primary scoring threat at guard when he’s ideally the second or even third option. He’s had moments, as he did against Maryland, but isn’t typically likely to score in the double figures.

Once he was glued to the bench with two early fouls (a decision in itself) Indiana’s backcourt simply wasn’t a scoring threat anymore. Auburn piled on from there until it became impossible for Indiana to dig its way out.

This is where Indiana’s transfer portal whiffs on a few guards are biting it. There’s an open scholarship spot that went unfilled last offseason when the frontcourt took priority in the portal. Though adding a guy for the sake of it could’ve backfired.

It’s also worth noting that it’s not all on Indiana. Freshman Jakai Newton has been unable all season with an injury, squeezing the depth even more.

A few thoughts:

  • Right now, Indiana just isn’t deep enough to bench a guard with two early fouls as the game slips away
  • They could really use anyone who can score occupying that final scholarship spot right now
  • The backcourt has been good enough in Big Ten play so far

Rotations and Lineups

Syndication: The Herald-Times Bobby Goddin/Herald-Times / USA TODAY NETWORK

Indiana used a deep rotation early in the season, which raised some eyebrows but wasn’t truly worth worrying about since the bench needs significant minutes ahead of bigger games and conference play.

But here we are in December and that bench, along with some of the unfavorable lineups it produces, are still getting substantial time.

Indiana led 21-10 seven minutes into the game when Woodson subbed out Kel’el Ware for Payton Sparks and Mackenzie Mgbako for Kaleb Banks. Galloway had already been subbed out for Gunn not long before, but Cupps was still on the floor to distribute.

Suddenly the lineup was Cupps-Gunn-Banks-Reneau-Sparks. Reneau is the only consistent scorer in that group... and then he was subbed out a bit over a minute later in favor of Anthony Walker, with Galloway coming in for Cupps.

Auburn began chipping away at Indiana’s lead and then Galloway picked up another foul and got benched. Indiana went completely and entirely cold, on both ends, from there.

Auburn turned a deficit into a dominant lead on one end and Indiana kept taking questionable at best shots on the other. That can be expected a bit when the most experienced guard on the floor is a sophomore, but things became really bad.

Indiana won the first ten minutes 26-20 and lost the following ten by 32(!)-8. Nobody could score and nobody could defend, the game was pretty much over by that point.

A combination of Galloway’s first half benching and some less-than-ideal lineups dug Indiana a chasm it couldn’t climb out of. Auburn kept hitting what felt like every shot as Indiana faltered.

Some of it comes down to the lineups. There just wasn’t enough scoring and distribution on the floor as Auburn went on a run. Woodson’s coaching absolutely guided Indiana to a road win against Michigan but against Auburn... much was left to be desired.

Shooting from deep

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Indiana Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but Indiana was outshot by its opponent and that made a big difference.

The Hoosiers took 17 3-pointers. The Tigers took 29. Indiana made six. Auburn made 14. Indiana was outscored from deep 42(!)-18 in one of its better scoring efforts from the perimeter on the season. Mgbako alone took seven of Indiana’s 17 shots.

That’s not a knock on him by the way. Someone’s gotta take those and if anybody should it’s him.

The Tigers made an absurd amount of those attempts but that’s just going to happen sometimes. Indiana just doesn’t have a chance if its attempting just three more shots than its opponent makes.

Pearl teams are perimeter-centric and Indiana, so far under Woodson, has relied on points in the paint from Trayce Jackson-Davis, Race Thompson, Ware and Reneau. The barrage it opened with on Saturday wasn’t sustainable while Auburn’s evidently was.

It’s almost simple. Auburn had more guards than Indiana on Saturday and more of them could shoot. That’s what let it dig out of a hole and build an insurmountable lead.

That’s not going to happen as often in the Big Ten but bodes rather ill for whatever postseason potential this team hopes to have. It wouldn’t take long to find multiple teams with more trustworthy backcourts/shooters than Indiana’s in any given NCAA bracket.

This is going to keep coming up and is by far the biggest takeaway, short and long term, that you can take from that game.