BLOOMINGTON – Before tonight's matchup against Northwestern, Indiana was hoping to seize a pick-me-up victory. The Hoosiers had lost two games in a row and had not looked crisp or together in either game. A matchup against the last-place team in the Big Ten seemed to offer some respite.
Well, the Hoosiers got a victory, but it wasn't much of a pick-me-up. Indiana escaped Assembly Hall tonight with a 66-62 win, but I don't think really anyone in the building went home feeling more confident in this Hoosiers team than they were coming in. Essentially, Indiana demonstrated all of the same problems – poor shooting, poor ball movement, lack of energy for stretches on defense – that have plagued them for the last two weeks. Tonight, however, they faced an opponent that, unlike Maryland or Wisconsin, wasn't good enough to put the game away during Indiana's dry patches and left the Hoosiers with enough wiggle room to make a comeback. In its four Big Ten games, Indiana has now gotten blown out twice on the road and beaten what are likely the two worst teams in the conference (Nebraska and the Wildcats) by a combined 10 points at home. It's not exactly an impressive start to conference play.
After the game, coach Archie Miller went through the usual motions of praising his team for coming back from 10-point deficit to earn a victory, but after that he spent about 10 minutes candidly discussing the problems that he sees with this group right now. One of the big issues in the coach's eyes is that players seem to be unclear on what their roles should be and that's hurting the team's chemistry.
"Part of it is right now we have a lot of guys who are unsure of themselves," Miller said. "Over a 14-15 game span, you hope you can develop your chemistry and your rhythm. It just doesn't seem like our group is locked in on, 'I do my job when I come in the game.' Just seems like we have some guys that are really unsure. I think that's why we have some turnovers. I think that's why we're playing lethargic defensively.
"Like I said to them after the game, strength in numbers is only going so far right now. The number (of players in the rotation) has to shrink a little bit maybe for some guys to get a jolt. We've gotta find the guys that are ready to roll, that are ready to play like we need to play."
That last point is one that Miller harped on several times in the postgame press conference: shrinking the rotation. Ever since the preseason, Miller has pointed to Indiana's ability to go 11-deep and feel confident in all 11 of those players as a source of strength for the team. It seems as though he's beginning to change his mind on that and there's a possibility we start seeming some "DNP Coach's Decision" for some of the scholarship players going forward, which hasn't happened much this year. De'Ron Davis, who has struggled to stay healthy, and Damezi Anderson, a shooter who has struggled to shoot, seem to be the likeliest to see their playing time cut. Jerome Hunter and Race Thompson could also see less time.
The big question for me is what the Hoosiers do with Devonte Green. Many of Miller's criticisms could apply to the senior captain: he isn't shooting well, isn't moving the ball crisply and his effort on defense is lacking at times. He went 0 for 6 from the field tonight, scored just one point and was on the bench for a good portion of Indiana's comeback. He remains the Hoosiers' best shooting threat on the perimeter, but his confidence is clearly lacking a little bit right now. Miller implied he is hoping some time out of the rotation will light a fire under certain players. Is Green among those? That will be an interesting situation to watch for Saturday against No. 11 Ohio State.
Meanwhile, Miller was blunt about his team's recent performance on offense. The Hoosiers shot just 37% tonight against a Northwestern team that has been above-average at best on the defensive end this season. Indiana turned it on late to get the win, using some better defense to create transition opportunities offensively, but the half-court offense remains ugly.
"We're not moving the ball right now. We don't move the ball as a good basketball team, and we're fighting to pass," Miller said. "When you're fighting to pass and everybody on the team and on the bench and in the locker room knows it's the thing we need to do better and we're talking about it a lot every day and the ball won't move, people look around and say, 'Why isn't that happening? We just worked on it.'
"Then we've got to figure out, like I said, who is not moving it. And then we move him on and we get somebody else in the game who will move it, because we're not moving the ball well right now. We're not a very sharp oriented offensive team because of it and we're turning it over."
Miller ended with an acknowledgement that despite the win tonight, his team is in a little bit of a slump. Last year, the midseason downturn spiraled into a brutal stretch of 12 losses in 13 games following a 12-2 start. Avoiding such a stretch this year will be the key to reaching the NCAA Tournament.
"We've got to punch through this wall right now," Miller concluded. "We're struggling through a little bit of a rut and we've got to punch through that wall a little bit and I'll say if you're not ready to go on Saturday, that's a problem."