Mental mistakes and poor defense doom Indiana in 91-79 loss at Wisconsin

  • 01/20/2024 8:00 am in

MADISON, Wisc. — CJ Gunn drew the assignment of the hot hand in Wisconsin guard Max Klesmit with just under 13 minutes to play.

Until then, Klesmit had scored 18 points in the second half while only missing one shot since the break. It wouldn’t be easy by any means, but with Indiana’s starting backcourt in foul trouble, Mike Woodson needed Gunn to step up if the Hoosiers had any chance to come from behind on the road.

Gunn didn’t give Indiana that chance; he got ejected on the first defensive possession after walking onto the floor. Klesmit rubbed his face against Gunn’s shoulder, trying to get under the sophomore’s skin, and Gunn took the bait. The Indianapolis native checked him with his right elbow.

The flagrant foul was one of the Hoosiers three in their last four games. Two of which resulted in ejections.

Gunn’s ejection wasn’t why Indiana lost to the No. 11 Badgers 91-79, but rather a microcosm of the season IU is having — small mistakes that lead to a collapse.

The elbow displayed frustration, a mental lapse and a lack of composure. Indiana’s struggled to find a leader on and off the floor all season. Sixth-year and captain point guard Xavier Johnson got ejected for hitting below the belt at Rutgers, which is not a very “captain” thing to do.

“In the heat of the battle, anything is to happen,” Woodson said postgame. “I’m not happy about it. After looking at it (Gunn’s elbow) the kid put his head on his chest, and he threw a semi-elbow… I can’t control that. He was kicked out.”

Moments like these are destructive and a gut punch. Coming on the road to one of the best teams in the nation and winning will be a tall task for this year’s Indiana team, but ejections, flagrant fouls and silly mental errors make it impossible.

Indiana has a small margin of error but doesn’t play like it. The Hoosiers continuously shoot themselves in the foot with sloppy and careless mistakes. Gabe Cupps, who was being hounded by Wisconsin point guard Chucky Hepburn, was called for a backcourt violation after he lost his dribble as he crossed the timeline. Things like that shouldn’t be happening two and a half months into the season.

There’s also a clear shift in the body language and confidence on the floor when things go awry. Trey Galloway had a rough stretch where Klesmit, who finished with 26 points, hit back-to-back 3-pointers in his face, forcing a timeout. Between the two, Galloway recklessly drove through three defenders and turned the ball over. Indiana assistant coach Yasir Rosemond grabbed a frustrated Galloway by the arm as he walked toward the bench.

Woodson described the stretch as “horrendous,” saying it cost the Hoosiers 10 points.

“We gotta find a way to be one on the court,” IU forward Malik Reneau said. “I feel like we’re kinda disconnected in some ways, but we’re gonna fix that and get it right.”

The lack of connection and togetherness is staggering. Indiana looks like a team without a soul and fire under them — maybe even a team with an apathetic response to embarrassment. Upperclassmen speaking up and demanding accountability may help, but questioning leadership this late into the season might mean that voice never comes.

“I put it where it lies. It still starts with our seniors.” Woodson said. “We got three of them.”

Some leadership qualities are intangible, but there are other ways to lead than holding a players-only meeting or clapping for your teammates. Setting an example with good body language and effort is a starting point.

Almost pleading for his team to show signs of life, Woodson publicly mentioned his team’s lack of toughness after the 21-point home loss to No. 2 Purdue on Tuesday. Nothing changed in the three days between games.

Wisconsin shot 60 percent from the field and 48 percent from distance while getting to the foul stripe for 29 free throw attempts. The Badgers scored 52 in the second half. Indiana did not have the level of grit and effort necessary to win on the defensive end.

There’s a clear disconnect on Indiana’s roster. The roster does have ten new players wearing the cream and crimson this season, but the clock is ticking on that mantra. At some point, “new” starts to lose its shine and grow rust — Indiana is beginning to corrode.

(Photo credit: IU Athletics)

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