Sunday, February 21, 2010
Minnesota Runs Hoosiers Out of the Barn: What Now for Indiana?
It's rough being an Indiana fan at the moment. Actually, I'm guessing it's pretty rough being on the team too. After losing another yawner tonight at the Golden Gophers' venerable venue, IU's skid stands at eight games.
Where do I start with this team? A month ago, Crean and the Hoosiers went on the road and beat Penn State 67-61 to even their record at 9-9 (3-3 Big Ten). Things were looking up, as Indiana had its third chance of the season at extending a winning streak to three games with lowly Iowa coming to town.
As they say, that's why they play the games. Indiana's players came out cocky and left with their tails between their legs. They shot less than 36 percent from the field and failed to hit a single three. They were outrebounded 39-23 by a Hawkeye team that nobody will ever mistake for contenders.
Since then, we have seen some heartbreak in a pair of painfully close losses to NCAA Tournament teams Illinois and No. 4 Purdue. And, more recently, we have seen a team that has simply lost the ability to keep games close.
In its last five, this Indiana team has lost by margins of seventeen (twice), twenty-eight, fourteen, and twenty-three. They haven't scored more than 61 points since taking Purdue to the wire on February 4.
There are a couple of reasons for the current skid, and none stand out more to me than Indiana's inability to share the ball. They haven't managed more than eleven assists, total, in any of the last five games. Minnesota got twenty-three tonight. What's the point of starting both Jeremiah Rivers and Jordan Hulls if neither of them can play point guard effectively?
Verdell Jones is averaging almost as many (3.3) assists per game as Rivers (3.8), and Hulls averages fewer than two despite starting most of Indiana's games in the Big Ten schedule.
But Indiana is not bad at all in several categories. They're fourth in the Big Ten in rebounding, and second in free throws made. Even Jeremiah has gotten his act together of late at the line, significantly improving his percentage since sinking a clutch pair to almost topple the Illini, way back at the start of this losing streak. And turnovers are down this season by almost six per game, a noticeable improvement.
With only four games left before the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis (I got my ticket! See you in the balcony, baby), can Indiana hope to reach ten victories? Here's what they need to do to steal a win as the calendar ticks over into March:
1) Balance the scoring load. Verdell Jones and Christian Watford have been IU's only real scoring threats this season. Against Minnesota, Devan Dumes scored twenty off the bench, but no other Hoosier managed more than ten. Guys like Jordan Hulls, Tom Pritchard, Derek Elston, and Bobby Capobianco have got to get into the offense with more consistency, and their point guards need to get better at finding them open looks.
2) Play better defense. When you struggle to score like Indiana does, you're not going to win any games giving up seventy points or more. Whether in man or 2-3 zone, Indiana has got to get more aggressive. Jeremiah Rivers, in particular, must accept the assignment of taking on and shutting down the other team's leading scorer every single game. Overall, the Hoosiers must establish some kind of defensive identity, or they're just going to keep getting walked over.
3) Go with two guards to start games. Starting both Rivers and Hulls means you have at least one point guard playing out of position. Hulls can shoot the three like a SG, but is severely undersized and not much of a threat to drive. Rivers can defend the 2, but is not a threat to score.
Meanwhile, playing three guards leaves Christian Watford and Tom Pritchard outmatched inside against bigger teams, and doesn't allow Watford to create like the swingman he is. He needs to be able to move around, not be stuck in the post.
So why not go with a two-guard lineup, as Tom Crean has pondered in the past? Bring either Rivers or Hulls off the bench, and start Capobianco or Elston at the 4. This, at least, would give Indiana a physical presence to start games, and not many Big Ten squads can match up with a frontline going 6'8", 6'9", 6'9". Play to your strengths (rebounding) and not to your weaknesses (assists, turnovers, scoring).
With home dates against Wisconsin and Northwestern, and road games at Purdue and Iowa, the Hoosiers face four teams that have already beaten them once during the last disastrous month. The current scheme isn't working, and it's not because IU doesn't have the talent to compete with the best of the conference - taking Purdue and Illinois to the wire proves that they do, even without star frosh Maurice Creek.
Tom Crean has got to earn his money and make some changes, or Indiana fans will be left with serious doubts as to the progress of this epic rebuilding project.