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Indiana men’s basketball loses to Auburn 104-76: Three things we learned

Ouch

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

The first six minutes of Indiana’s neutral court matchup with Auburn today were some of the best we’ve seen all season. The ball was moving, the shots were falling, and it suddenly seemed like the offense would be less reliant on paint scoring.

And then things fell apart. And continued to fall apart.

There was another brief period in the second half where Indiana came out looking competitive, cutting an 18 point halftime lead down to 11, but the wheels quickly came off once again. The perimeter defense disappeared and Auburn heated up from deep.

Given the contrasting playing styles between Auburn and Indiana, this kind of blowout loss was always going to be a possibility. Auburn likes to play in transition and shoot 3-pointers, two things that Indiana has struggled with this year.

Still, it was disappointing to see this effort from a team that appeared to have been improving over the past few games. Losing like this also doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence before the Hoosiers host Kansas a week from today.

Here’s Three Things we learned:


The Rotation

Earlier in the season I expressed some skepticism as to whether Mike Woodson’s strategy of playing an entire second unit would work against high major competition. The bench did not appear to be able to score without some starters and there were noticeable drop offs on the defensive end.

For a few games there, I appeared to have been wrong. The front court of Anthony Walker and Payton Sparks looked serviceable basically from the Louisville game until today, with each of them contributing valuable minutes in those last four wins.

Today’s game was a strong argument against continuing to use the bench like that going forward. Once Kel’el Ware, Malik Reneau, and Mackenzie Mgbako came out, the game got away from Indiana.

The good news is that Indiana has a lot of options to fix this with the way the roster is built. Malik Reneau has seen minutes at the 4 and 5 spots, while they’ve played four different players at the 3 and three players at the 4.

Between Kaleb Banks, Mackenzie Mgbako, Anthony Walker, and C.J. Gunn, there are plenty of ways to address the minutes that either Reneau or Ware need to sit for. But they probably should not be benched together.


Composure

However poorly the bench played, the starters had plenty of opportunities to right the ship and failed to do so. Cutting the lead to 11 early in the second half was proof that the game was not totally out of reach even with the brutal end to the first half, but Indiana did not play hard enough to win it.

A big part of this was the way Auburn defended the paint. Ware and Reneau got to double digits, but struggled to do so, each shooting well below their season average field goal percentage.

The one area that Indiana improved on in the second half was limiting turnovers, committing just two in the final 20 minutes after turning it over nine times in the second half. Other than that, the second half was just a continuation of the sloppy play we saw in the first.

You’d like to think that having Xavier Johnson would have helped in this regard, but you can’t really pin a 25+ point loss on missing one player. Indiana simply has to be tougher and to find ways to respond when it gets punched in the mouth like it did today.


Perspective

It’s still December. If this is the worst loss Indiana suffers all season, it’s unlikely to mean much in the long run. As I’ve said before this season, Indiana had mostly been great about avoiding disaster this year.

Today’s lopsided loss definitely looks bad and will give the Kenpom guys something to freak out about, but it’s far from the end of the season. The Hoosiers suffered a similarly ugly loss to Kansas last year, lost their starting point guard, and still bounced back to finish second in the conference.

The good news is that the rest of the Big Ten appears similarly vulnerable. The same Indiana team that got smoked by Auburn today is already 2-0 in the conference with a win in Ann Arbor.

Aside from Purdue, nobody in the conference appears to be playing their best basketball right now. Michigan State, the other preseason darling, currently sits at 4-4 with a home loss to James Madison.

So long as Indiana can get back to improving every game, as they had been before today’s loss, there's a future.