For the twentieth straight game, Indiana men’s basketball has lost in the Kohl Center. It’s a streak that spans six coaches (we do not acknowledge Dan Dakich), dozens of players, and plenty of teams, good and bad, from each program.
As opposed to some of the more unexpected or heartbreaking losses over that span, today went about as poorly as I would have thought. Especially upon learning that Indiana would be without Kel’el Ware and his 14.2 points, 9.2 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks per game.
Playing Payton Sparks was maybe not the move I would have made in that situation, but he did bring some energy and physicality that Indiana had been lacking of late. Overall, Indiana had decent energy tonight, especially near the beginning and end of the game.
Unfortunately, the energy wasn’t enough to overcome the lack of discipline and confidence that Indiana played with throughout. A good start to the second half came to an abrupt end with a flagrant foul and the team passed up too many good looks from three that could have chipped away at the Badger lead.
Here’s Three Things we learned:
Before the score got lopsided, I knew things were going to get bad because of the way Indiana was playing. Nobody appeared to have any confidence in what they were doing, hesitating before every shot, pass, and defensive rotation.
One sequence that stands out in particular came around the 10 minute mark of the first half, when Indiana was trailing by just three points. Xavier Johnson brought it up the court before working it over to Trey Galloway to initiate the offense, which is where it all came apart.
After tripping on an attempted back cut, Johnson came back out to the perimeter to catch a pass and drive. He beat his guy, but then hesitated deciding whether to pass to Galloway on the perimeter or Malik Reneau inside.
Indiana hadn’t attempted a 3-pointer at this point, so I do think that kicking it out to Galloway was the right move, but Galloway wasn’t confident in his look and kicked it over to Xavier Johnson, who hadn’t hit a field goal in two games and hasn’t hit a 3-pointer in two weeks. He missed this three, and Wisconsin rebounded the miss.
This play kind of encapsulates Indiana’s season. The two senior guards, kept around to bring experience and stability for an otherwise young team, failing to even play confidently within themselves. That is not a recipe for success.
For the third straight game, Indiana received a flagrant foul. Two of these fouls have been flagrant twos, resulting in automatic ejections.
C.J. Gunn’s flagrant two tonight was the most frustrating of the bunch because it was a dead ball play. But the fact that Johnson accounted for two of the three fouls is probably more hurtful to the season.
The fouls haven’t been the only issue with regards to this team’s discipline. Anthony Walker, who has never shot better than 23.5% from three, took another long jumper with his foot on the arc today. A real worst of both worlds in that he took a shot he’s not hitting but also for fewer points with one foot on the line.
The disciplinary issues are connected to the confidence issues in some regard and bled over to the defensive end. The team doubts itself, gets desperate, and swarms the ball to force a turnover in a way that is very obviously not a part of any established defensive system.
When they can’t turn it over, it’s led to a kick out to a wide open shooter. Tonight was not the first time we’ve seen this.
By the end of the first half, Gabe Cupps had already reached his career scoring high in a Big Ten game with seven points. He was a little quieter in the second half, but this scoring development is huge for Indiana if it hopes to salvage anything from this season.
First and foremost, it allows Xavier Johnson to try to find some semblance of his former self in an off-ball role. If he can return to form this year, I don’t think it’s going to be as the primary ball handler, where he’s struggled to make good decisions and turned it over far too many times.
Luke wrote earlier today that it may be time to start leaning on the younger guards more, which becomes significantly easier if Cupps can even get to around 5-6 points per game. As things stand right now, Woodson has to choose between Cupps’ steadier 2.7 points per game or Johnson’s ability to go out and get 15 on a good night.
He’s certainly the point guard of the future for Woodson and Indiana, but if his offensive game arrives sooner than expected, he’s going to make a case for being the point guard of the present.