This isn’t a new scene at all.
Indiana was in a dire spot this time last year too with early losses in Big Ten play casting doubt on the season. Then came wins over Wisconsin and Illinois before the big one, taking down No. 1 Purdue.
But Trayce Jackson-Davis and Jalen Hood-Schifino were here. That’s not the case this year. Nobody’s coming to save the Hoosiers.
There’s not one reason above all else that speaks to why the Hoosiers are here, rather an avalanche of issues and problems that individually could be overcome but all at once? Not so much.
So let’s define those:
- Indiana has a lot of youth
The starting lineup the past few games has been freshman-senior-freshman-sophomore-sophomore.
Watching them play, these guys just aren’t super familiar with playing together. That’s gotten better from the start of the season but it’s still obvious when a guy forgets to switch or is too late. There’s the usual underclassmen errors and that’s just not going to make things easy.
- Indiana’s seniors haven’t been good enough
Xavier Johnson has seemingly lost his touch on the basketball court. He can’t score, reliably distribute and has picked up multiple flagrants in the past few weeks. Trey Galloway has moments and always plays hard but frankly doesn’t look like a senior out there.
Johnson has been almost unplayable the past few games between the fouls and lack of production. Indiana bet big on him overcoming that and felt better about a guard who’d been in the program/system with clear success than an unknown out of the transfer portal. That wasn’t a bad bet to make but it lost out as bad as it possibly could’ve.
Galloway has had some very bright spots but still looks indecisive at times and out of his proper role. He looked more comfortable as the second scoring option in the backcourt last year but has been forced into that role this year.
- Indiana’s shot selection has been questionable at best
Under Mike Woodson, Indiana has had a proclivity for the dreaded long two. This worked when Jalen Hood-Schifino was the one taking those shots, not so much on any other occasion. The Hoosiers are in the 73rd percentile in taking long twos but in the 34th percentile for making them.
That or guys are taking shots they shouldn’t. Indiana runs plays through Sparks when he’s on the floor when he hasn’t shown the touch to reliably hit shots down low in the Big Ten. Walker has taken a few 3s when that’s clearly not his forte. Too many guys dribble out of contested 3s for long twos when there’s more room on the arc right there.
- Indiana’s bench hasn’t given it enough
Indiana expected and needed leaps from guys like CJ Gunn and Kaleb Banks while Payton Sparks was brought in to be a steadier presence than he’s been. Gunn has showed flashes but Banks gets limited if any minutes as of late. Anthony Walker has fallen off slightly as of late.
Indiana needed more from that group and hasn’t gotten it.
- Indiana’s lineups don’t inspire confidence
The Hoosiers have found themselves without Kel’el Ware more than once now and each time resulted in starting minutes from Payton Sparks. Given the option to move 6-8 Mackenzie Mgbako to the four with a smaller lineup, Indiana hasn’t done so. Wholesale second unit changes aren’t uncommon.
Even before the season it was said by a few outlets that Mgbako should spend some time at the four. That hasn’t happened in starting or staggered lineups outside of one stretch when Indiana went small. The all-bench lineup with just one starter has nobody with an ability to score and is just asking to give away a lead.
Indiana has gone with two bigs for multiple years in a row from the end of the Archie Miller era to the beginning of Woodson’s tenure. Difference is now both can shoot from deep. It’s still a spacing issue and one that’s unforced with Mgbako on the roster.
- There’s no identity
This team has fallen back onto the tendencies of last year’s of relying on Jackson-Davis in the post, only with Malik Reneau in that role. To his credit, he’s thrived there and is an All-Big Ten caliber player. Woodson previously said he’d never coached an offense through the post like that before and wanted to revert back to his “comfort zone” of offense that he ran with the Knicks. This isn’t that.
Alright those are Indiana’s issues. What can it do?
Well, play Mgbako at the four, for one. He has the size to do it and the tough shot-making to have it be a viable approach with one of Kel’el Ware or Mackenzie Mgbako at the five. It’s long past time to give it a proper go.
Stop taking those lone twos and instead just go for 3s. It’s the worst shot in basketball and should only be taken in extremely late clock situations.
Indiana still needs Xavier Johnson this season, for depth if nothing else. Bring him off the bench and let him work through all of this, which has been done to... some results as of late.
Other than that? There’s not much to do. The team’s roster construction is poor for reasons in and out of its control. There aren’t enough guards due to an injury to Jakai Newton and those who are available just haven’t been good enough.
The Kel’el Ware-Malik Reneau frontcourt has been serviceable with the latter, again, looking like one of the best forwards in the conference. Ware won’t be here next year, he’s a surefire NBA draft pick.
I’d love to be able to look to the future but I hesitate to write about the coming offseason as early as January, but that’s the only place a lot of these issues can be fixed.