COLUMBUS, Ohio – After a couple of false starts and some rough patches on the road early on, it seemed that Indiana's season had finally turned a corner last week when a hard-fought victory over then-No. 11 Michigan State capped a stretch of four wins in five games and left the Hoosiers in the thick of the Big Ten race.
Where is the tough, confident team that out-muscled the Spartans in crucial moments? Because it certainly didn't show up against either Penn State or Ohio State this week. The Buckeyes were the aggressor all afternoon against the Hoosiers on Saturday, winning the rebounding battle convincingly and getting a plethora of easy baskets in the paint on the way to a 68-59 win that wasn't as close as the final score.
The Hoosiers have now lost three in a row since that win over the Spartans and have dropped back below .500 in Big Ten play. It's not quite time to panic about the team's NCAA Tournament chances yet, but it's getting very close. The Hoosiers can't win games playing the way they did this week: little energy, minimal interior defense, not enough ball movement on offense.
"This team has hit a pothole so to speak," coach Archie Miller said. "In every season, the story's never written until the end, but we're going to have to change paths here and change course of how we're playing. The only group that can really get them out of it is us. Like every team that goes through it, you find your tough guys, you find your togetherness and you have to find a way to break through in the moment of truth."
Miller was clearly frustrated today after his team got bullied for 40 minutes. It felt as though nearly every 50/50 ball went the Buckeyes' way. Indiana's struggles offensively this season have been well-documented, but the Hoosiers have been able to overcome them in many games with tough, physical play in the paint, out-working teams that score points more efficiently. When Indiana wins, it wins ugly. That formula is broken and it needs to be fixed, or this season will go down the drain quickly.
"Right now, there's just a lack of physicality," Miller said. "If you watch (Big Ten games) as we keep approaching the end of the season, it's so physical, everything in the paint is hard-earned. (Ohio State) probably had 10 layups tonight. Our interior presence, our inability to defend the paint and rebound, that's something that has to be intact in order for us to be good. It just hasn't been there the last couple of games. Obviously we have some time here to re-group, which we need to."
The Hoosiers do have some time to figure things out. They have six days off before they play Purdue next Saturday at Assembly Hall, a game that could well be one of the defining moments of Indiana's season. If the Hoosiers can't get excited to play at home against a rival that's beaten them five times in a row, this team might as well pack it in for the rest of the year.
"Our next opportunity is Purdue at home," Miller said. "Nothing's going to mean more than that day."
The problem as I see it right now is that it's unclear where Indiana can find a spark. Sure, there have been games recently where the Hoosiers have, as a team, come out ready to go and playing with energy. Michigan State was one such game, as was Florida State earlier in the season. The problem arrives when the team gets off to a slow start. Good teams have players – usually a group of veteran leaders – who sense that the team's energy level isn't where it needs to be, bring their teammates together and motivate the group. Last year, that was Juwan Morgan. Who is it for this team? Seniors Devonte Green and De'Ron Davis haven't done it and both of them come off the bench anyway. Justin Smith has tried, but he's soft-spoken by nature. The most likely options are Joey Brunk and Robert Phinisee. It's surprising to put Phinisee in that category because he's only a sophomore, but he has clearly made an effort, especially in the last month, to play a more vocal role in motivating his teammates. That bodes well for the rest of his career, but it's unclear whether he and Brunk will be enough to push their team over the top this season. With a 1-5 record on the road so far, the early returns are not positive.
After the game, Buckeyes coach Chris Holtmann spent some time talking about Ohio State freshman guard D.J. Carton, the team's third-leading scorer, who announced Friday that he is taking some time away from the program to work on his mental health. Holtmann thanked the OSU fanbase for its overwhelming support of Carton's decision and added some choice words for the few detractors.
"For the rare few who tweeted at me that this is somehow a reflection of our program, a reflection on me personally: guilty," Holtmann said. "So be it. You can take your antiquated thinking somewhere else. There is nothing more important in our program than our players' physical and mental health and overall growth. That will always be the case."