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The Journal Gazette

  • Associated Press Josh Newkirk is Indiana’s only true point guard, but he has yet to establish himself as something other than a backup-caliber player.

Friday, January 06, 2017 10:01 pm

After solid start, IU must regroup

Chris Goff | The Journal Gazette

BLOOMINGTON – Some nights, Indiana (10-5, 0-2 Big Ten) has looked like a national champ. Others, a bubble team.

Opinions varied as to what type of team Indiana would be this season but nobody thought it would be the kind that loses to Nebraska at Assembly Hall.

Or in Fort Wayne to IPFW.

But Tuesday’s Wisconsin letdown made it four losses in six games, showing that the Hoosiers are a far cry from the squad that won the Big Ten regular-season title a year ago.

Despite losing Yogi Ferrell, this roster was supposed to be a legitimate threat to repeat. It was talented and had the size.

But at nearly the halfway mark of the season, aspirations in Bloomington are no longer the sugarplum dreams of Final Four glory, but the less lofty concern of simply getting into the field on Selection Sunday.

So what’s happening to the Hoosiers? Let’s break it down:

Defense: As usual, Indiana wins with its offense. IU leads the Big Ten in scoring – as it has done three times since 2011 – with 115.8 points per 100 possessions. But the defense has slumped to 78th in the national ranking after being 59th in 2015-16.

The good news is while the Hoosiers’ defense is eighth in the Big Ten in points allowed per possession, they started out even worse last season before righting the ship.

Regression to the mean: On New Year’s Eve, IU got blown out for the only time, shooting 32 percent against Louisville.

That partly was a matter of missing open shots – Robert Johnson in particular had some open looks from outside that he’d normally put down. But also true is that the Hoosiers were due to see a dip in the scorching shooting percentages they posted in the early part of the season. After shooting 9 for 36 from 3-point range in their past two games, they’re at a somewhat more realistic 38.8 percent from downtown – now ahead of only 21 teams’ field goal percentages. As recently as two weeks ago, their 3-point percentage was better than 50 teams’ field goal percentages.

It was inevitable Indiana would fall back to earth a bit.

Point guard: Poor play from this position has been a huge reason the Hoosiers’ offense is thrown off-kilter at times. The only true point in their rotation is Josh Newkirk, a two-year backup at Pittsburgh who has been pressed into a starting role after transferring to IU.

Newkirk has yet to establish himself as something other than a backup-caliber player, shooting 41 percent from the field with an unacceptable mix of 3.6 assists against 2.2 turnovers per game. His sky-high turnover rate is the fifth-worst of any Big Ten player.

Stars dim: James Blackmon Jr. after a torrid start has since cooled off; he averaged 18.5 points on 51 percent shooting during Indiana’s 10-2 start but has averaged 10.7 points on 36 percent shooting in the current three-game skid. Also, Thomas Bryant needs to play better. He needs better interior footwork on both offense and defense.

While the losing streak is unlikely to hit four – the Hoosiers’ next game is at home against Illinois today – they’ll have to stem the bleeding permanently to get back into the mix for a top-five seed in the Big Dance.