However impressed I am by this particular Nebraska team, I can confidently say that this was Indiana’s worst loss of the season and maybe of the last couple. Because the Huskers are so good, it may not hurt Indiana’s resume, but man was it hard to watch.
Making things worse tonight were the heightened expectations Indiana fans had upon hearing that Xavier Johnson would be returning to the lineup. With the chance for a good road win in early January on the line, the Hoosiers did not show up (with one exception).
Probably the last thing Indiana could afford to do tonight was let Keisei Tominaga get hot from 3-point range and it did just that. Kominaga finished with 28 points, going 4-10 from deep and drawing fouls on multiple of the misses.
With not much going on the offensive end and multiple players in foul trouble, the Hoosiers didn’t really have a chance to claw their way back from the eight point halftime deficit. Too many fouls, too many turnovers, too many bad plays for Indiana to have beaten any Big Ten team on the road tonight, much less a respectable Nebraska squad.
Here’s Three Things we learned:
In prior games, we saw how much Indiana needs Xavier Johnson in its starting lineup. Tonight, we saw the level at which he will need to play to elevate Indiana to its ceiling.
After missing the last couple of weeks with a foot injury, Johnson was not the player Indiana needed him to be just yet. In the first half alone, he committed four turnovers. Gabe Cupps had just five turnovers total in his absence.
It’s not that Johnson needs to be a game manager like Cupps, but he cannot afford to turn the ball over as much as he did tonight. With him in the starting lineup, Indiana starts five guys currently averaging more than 10 points per game. He needs to score, and hopefully get his assist numbers back to where they were in his first two seasons with Indiana.
The good news is that most of the things he struggled with can be attributed to rust. Missing time and reps with his teammates obviously hurt his rhythm and he didn’t appear to have confidence trying to score.
The concern is that it’s something that can only improve with more reps, and he may not be back in game shape by the time the Hoosiers take the floor again Saturday. I’m a little worried that this is a hard time to work your starting point guard back into meaningful minutes, but that’s where we’re at.
Had the fouls, turnovers, and bad decisions been limited to Xavier Johnson, Indiana would have had a chance to win this game. Cupps has led Indiana to two Big Ten wins already, including one on the road against Michigan.
Unfortunately for Indiana, everyone but Kel’el Ware struggled against Nebraska tonight. More on him later.
Mackenzie Mgbako, one of Indiana’s best shooters, was unable to stay on the floor after picking up two early fouls and getting lost defensively in the second half. There’s an argument to be made that he needs to play through foul trouble, but we know Woodson will not trust him if his defense isn’t up to snuff.
Johnson was actually one of three Indiana players to turn the ball over four times tonight, joining Ware and Malik Reneau while Galloway turned it over three times. As a team, Indiana turned it over 19 times tonight, a season-high, against a team that struggles to force turnovers.
Cupps was actually characteristically steady, committing zero turnovers in 26 minutes, but his 5 points per game were just not enough to keep Indiana in the game with how it was defending as a team.
Mike Woodson will have to have this group more locked in and focused this Saturday, regardless of the opponent or officials. He also seems to have some decisions to make about the rotation and two-foul usage, as we saw some pretty odd and dysfunctional lineups tonight at crucial moments.
The lone bright spot tonight was the gutsy performance of Kel’el Ware, who led Indiana with 20 points, 10 rebounds, two assists, and two blocks in his first game back from an illness.
At times, the lob from Reneau to Ware was the only thing that Indiana could manage offensively, which kept the Hoosiers in the game until about the halfway point of the second half.
Not that his effort was in question anymore, but he showed a lot of hustle tonight diving for loose balls and battling for rebounds against a skilled center in Rienk Mast, who also brought him out to the perimeter for defense.
Defensively, he kept Mast to a quiet nine points on 3-10 shooting and 0-3 from 3-point range. He also had a couple of highlight reel blocks that quieted an otherwise rowdy Nebraska crowd.
All in all it was a very bad, and very weird game that will take some time to digest properly, but there’s no denying the energy and skill that Ware brought to the game today. Without him, it could have been a lot worse.