College basketball seasons are long and dynamic things. They’re not like college football seasons, which require drilled excellence from the outset and where a midseason loss can kill your chances at winning a truly screwed-up national championship. They’re not like NFL or NBA seasons, where each team is basically what they are starting in training camp. They’re not baseball seasons, either, where the playoffs are such a comparably small sample size that all a fan can hope for is a division title — the rest feels like a crapshoot.
Instead, college basketball teams, the ones that compete in March, have similar blueprints: They roll the balls out in October, look terrible in November and December, coalesce in January, fade slightly in February, and, if they’re really good, peak in March when the games matter most. This blueprint hits close to home; just look at Michigan State this year. Or North Carolina. Or any of the teams still playing basketball next weekend. Or any of the 20 or so teams that lost last weekend that deserved to win. That’s the blueprint you’re supposed to follow.
I wish we could look back at IU’s season, as this TMA intends to, and say they followed the blueprint. A loss to a good Arkansas team under those auspices would have been OK. But we can’t say that. Instead, they didn’t push to the finish, or peak in their late games. They quit. They just quit. And for some reason, I’m not even mad.
Strong out of the gate: In each of IU’s last three losses, they’ve trailed at halftime and in two of the games (Michigan State and Minnesota), they’ve trailed big early. Playing from behind is not advisable for anybody in the NCAA Tournament. And for a team that has struggled as badly of late as this one, another slow start could be a recipe for catastrophe.
Establish D.J. White: With IU’s recent struggles from the perimeter, it’s essential to establish White in order to free up some open looks for Armon Bassett, Eric Gordon and Jordan Crawford. Bassett and Gordon are shooting a combined 18.3 percent from three-point range on their last 53 attempts. As Terry Hutchens pointed out in today’s Indianapolis Star, White took just three shots in the first 12 minutes against Minnesota and in the Penn State game, he took just two shots in the first ten minutes. That’s not acceptable for a player shooting over 60 percent from the field.
Big game for Gordon: It’s been a while since the freshman had a solid shooting night. In fact, the last time he shot better than 50 percent from the field was on February 16 against Michigan State. In other words, he’s more than overdue for a hot shooting night. Gordon knows this is likely his only chance to make a run in the NCAA Tournament. It’ll be important to get him a couple of open looks early to establish his confidence. If the Hoosiers can get him going, the combination of White and Gordon is as good as any in the country.
Bad decisions. If you can boil down IU’s entire struggle with injured little meek please-govnah-don’t-hurt-us Penn State yesterday, that was it. Bad decisions.
Bad decisions from the three-point line. Bad decisions in the post. Bad decisions on defense. Whatever bad decision Jamarcus Ellis made in between now and last Wednesday. Most especially, bad decisions in the final minutes of overtime, a time when inside buckets could have helped keep the Hoosiers afloat. Bad decisions when IU opted for three-pointer after three-pointer. Bad decisions that neglected D.J. White too often and made IU look too little like the team it could have been on the eve of the Big Ten Tournament.
— The optimist in me wants to ignore the various deficiencies today. Instead, it would be just as easy to chalk this game up to late-season fatigue and apathy, similar to the ugly first 30 minutes of Wednesday’s win over the Tubby Gophers. Sunday’s first half was a display of rampant sluggishness, followed by a second half of disorganized frenzy. Both halves yielded very few made shots for IU. Neither of those things are necessarily an indictment of the team if they happen once or twice in a row, but now, since Kelvin Sampson was fired, they have happened five straight times.
We’ve been over this before, but let’s look at it again:
— Win at Northwestern, in a game that makes NU’s gimmicky offense and Kevin Coble look like UNC and Tyler Hansbrough. Lucky that Northwestern’s defense is just incompetent enough to keep IU in the game throughout.
— Win over Ohio State at home in a game that, as you were watching, felt like the Hoosiers should have been playing far more convincingly. That’s gut-feeling stuff and admittedly not very tangible, but you know what I’m talking about. (Though with Ohio State’s win over Michigan State, at least the Buckeyes look like a tournament team again.)
— The drubbing at Michigan State. Let’s not review that one again.
— Ugly 30 minutes vs. Minnesota. Eventual win thanks to briefly revived offense.
— Sunday’s loss.
See what I mean? There’s a trend there, a trend of serious systemic defensive problems, of sporadic offensive lapses, and of playing down to the level of the opponent. To chalk that up to bad shooting is to do a disservice to just how mediocre IU has been over the past three weeks. Three in a row is a trend. What does that make five?
It took a while for the Hoosiers to pull away in this one — thanks to Northwestern’s back cuts and three-point shooting — but with around eight minutes to go, Eric Gordon hit a few shots, D.J. White chipped in some free throws and that was that: 75-63, IU wins. For the afternoon Gordon had 29 points — 18 of which came on three-point baskets. White racked up his fourteenth double-double with 26 points and 13 boards. Craig Moore led the Wildcats with 17 points.
It also helped that IU went to a zone in the second half, negating some of Northwestern’s nifty screening and cutting. At one point, Northwestern didn’t notch a field goal for just about eight minutes. Kyle Taber got the start at the four for the Hoosiers and saw some considerable playing time. (Clearly, Kelvin Sampson — like many of us — is realizing the Mike White/DeAndre Thomas/Lance Stemler combo has been lackluster as of late.)
Though Taber saw considerable playing time, he was just sort of, well, there. He didn’t do anything particularly notable. He didn’t do anything particularly awful, either. (Although, I do remember an errant pass for a turnover in the second half.) It was nice to see Sampson try something else there, even if it wasn’t quite the answer. Taber does have size and if he can play some defense — which he seemed somewhat capable of today — it might be another serviceable option for IU as the season progresses.
Our guy A.J. Ratliff saw the floor for a good stretch this afternoon as well, but it’s clear his shot just isn’t there yet this season. He attempted six threes and only hit one.
Oh and since we’ve all been rather critical of Sampson, his offensive schemes and the way this team has played this year, I highly recommend you read Chris Korman’s article from today. Sampson responded to a lot of that criticism yesterday. (One thing I’ll say: Sampson was able to maximize the talent on last year’s squad: they played well together. Why he hasn’t been able to do that for this year’s team, well, I don’t know. But we’re eight game deep in the Big Ten season, he better figure it out soon.)
The Hoosiers are now 18-3 on the season and 7-1 in the Big Ten. They play Illinois on Thursday night in Champaign, Ill.