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.
(Yes, we are aware of the Eric Gordon wrist injury rumors floating around various message boards. We’ll keep you updated if anything official comes to the surface. Now, onward…)
Ahh, the four spot. No doubt about it, the lack of production from this particular position has been a killer for the Hoosiers in their two losses. Here are the numbers and there’s no way around it, they’re ugly:
— Xavier: Lance Stemler and DeAndre Thomas combined for 31 minutes, four points, seven rebounds, one block and eight fouls.
— Connecticut: Lance Stemler, DeAndre Thomas and Mike White combined for 34 minutes, five points, four rebounds, no blocks and two fouls.
Now, before I dig into this deeper, first let me say that I’m not expecting one of these three fine gentlemen to morph into Luke Harangody. That would be too good to be true (and really awesome).
What I would like to see is some form of consistent contribution from this position. Guys, you don’t even have to score. That’s already covered. Play good defense, take a few charges, rebound on occasion and I’m ecstatic. That said, it’s just not happening right now. So let’s examine the three choices and then get your take (OK, I might give mine too) on who the best option is to get the bulk of the minutes.
There have been plenty of moments of frustration thus far this season. E.J.’s turnovers, seemingly the one thing keeping him from being a truly dominant college basketball player. The lack of a true point guard, leading to skittish play from Armon Bassett and, of course, Jordan Crawford. The insistence on up-and-down, one-on-one basketball, the way it leaves the half court offense stagnant. All of this stuff has crept up at some point this year, even in wins, each of us knowing it was only a matter of time before all of the above caught up to the Hoosiers and cost them a relatively important game.
The positive, I suppose, is that this happened now rather than in March … but that doesn’t make any less frustrating. Anger, venting and, most of all, frustration begin below. Grrr:
— Athleticism. Let’s talk athleticism. More to the point, let’s talk about how little of it the Hoosiers actually have, and how more athletic teams are able to prey on the deficit in running and jumping ability. Nowhere is this more evident than on the offensive end. In most games, the Hoosiers are able to run their iso offense without much trouble; Eric Gordon can be an unstoppable offensive force against lesser defenders, D.J. White has been playing infallibly on offense, and his dominance usually frees up Crawford, Bassett, A.J. Ratliff, and the rest of the perimeter to shoot freely. That strategy works, but it only works when the talent gap is great enough to compensate for the lack of strategic complexity.
Against an athletic team like UConn — who just happens to have one of the best interior defenders in the country — the talent gap was minimized. The Hoosiers are a more skilled team than the Huskies, but they continually negated that advantage in skill by trying to pound the ball inside. That was never going to work; when Thabeet wasn’t blocking shots, he was intimidating enough to prevent penetrating guards from even trying to score. Also, thanks to Thabeet, the Huskies didn’t have to double D.J., making it more difficult for shooters to get open on the perimeter. When the ball was out top, it was usually dribbled ineffectively from side-to-side before launching up a ridiculous 25 foot attempt. So IU’s opportunities were limited to a). highly challenged driving layup, or b). long three-pointer. That’s never going to be an effective strategy, no matter how good you are.
What would have happened in a perfect world: About three weeks ago, Sampson would have started installing some more sets like the one that got Armon open on the third play of the game, but with more layers and rolls to get Gordon, White, and even Jamarcus Ellis in advantageous scoring positions. Since IU doesn’t seem to have those sets installed — not even simple stuff like, say, a UCLA 1-4 or something — more often than not it looks like IU is standing around, hoping Eric Gordon can make something happen before the shot clock runs out.
Talk about a frustrating, sloppy night for the Hoosiers. EJ picked up three fouls in the first half, (the first ticky-tac; the second a charge; the third was a bit suspect, but there was no reason for him to be playing defense so close 35 feet from the basket) and pass after pass after pass seemed near destined to be intercepted by the Golden Gophers. (A good amount were.)
When halftime rolled around, the Hoosiers had racked up 14 turnovers. Ugh. But hey, they were still up eight points — 40-32 — largely due to Jordan Crawford (aka “The Undisciplined One”) going 5-9 from the field for 14 points, including four threes. He’s pretty good when he just stands there and shoots, eh?
The second half was more of the same, as the Hoosiers played risk and reward with Minnesota’s full-court press. D.J. White — who is playing like an absolute beast, by the way — got some easy looks when IU broke the press, but there was a number of times IU turned the ball over out of it as well. For the game, the Hoosiers had 26 turnovers. Not good.
But we all saw this game and we know the overriding thesis here: despite the slop, Eric Gordon having an off-game (he finished with 12 points and seven turnovers) and the tough environment: the Hoosiers got the W. Lance Stemler hit the go-ahead three with about 1:30 to go to put IU up 61-60. Gordon hit two free throws after a reach-in foul which extended the lead 63-60. Minnesota’s Lawrence McKenzie missed a three to tie the game and that was pretty much that: IU wins 65-60.
Through all the frustration these last two games against Illinois and Minnesota — and there’s been some frustrating moments — we won. And hey, I’ll take it. IU is now 4-0 in the Big Ten. The Hoosiers are 15-1 overall and it’s our best start since ’96-’97. Revel in it, Hoosier fans.