BLOOMINGTON – Well that was different.
After Indiana's suffocating defense carried it to a win over Iowa on Thursday, the Hoosiers regressed significantly on that end of the court and a poor defensive performance actually dragged down a hot shooting start for IU, which hit its first four 3-pointers. As a result of Indiana's defensive breakdowns, the Hoosiers trail Rutgers 38-33 at halftime and the Scarlet Knights are shooting 59%.
The problems for Indiana in the first half started in the paint. Rutgers dominated inside on both of ends of the floor, walling off the lane to Indiana's big men and getting a string of easy baskets close to the rim on offense. Trayce Jackson-Davis, who has been able to get good looks from close to the hoop almost all season was stymied in the early going, getting his first two attempts blocked and traveling with his back to the basket the third time he got the ball in the post. Those defensive stands from Rutgers big men Myles Johnson and Cliff Omoruyi set the tone for the whole half and Indiana shot a paltry 42% on 2-point attempts. To his credit, Jackson-Davis wasn't intimidated by the early rejections and kept attacking the basket, but he only has six points at halftime and the Hoosiers need a lot more from their superstar.
But it's on defense where Indiana has really let down after the loss to the Hawkeyes. Rutgers is not a dominant offensive team and the Scarlet Knights haven't done anything special on the offensive end, but they have gotten way too many easy baskets because of breakdowns in Indiana's ball-screen and help defense. Rutgers has 18 points in the paint to 14 for Indiana. Some of those Rutgers points in the lane have come from Omoruyi and Johnson overpowering Indiana's smaller frontcourt players near the rim, but there have been some pick-and-roll baskets that have come far too easily.
Despite the slippage on defense, Indiana has been able to stay close because of some hot shooting from beyond the arc. Rutgers' emphasis on closing off the lane left some outside shots available to the Hoosiers and they took advantage, particularly early. Rob Phinisee and Al Durham each made a 3-pointer and then Jerome Hunter made two on back-to-back possessions. Hunter was arguably Indiana's best offensive player in the first half, showing no hesitation in firing when he was open from deep and taking the ball to the rim aggressively. He has nine points on 3-for-5 shooting at the break.
As good as Hunter has been on offense, however, I continue to believe he's not well-suited to playing the 4 on defense. He's long and athletic, but he's not quite big enough to guard some of the talented stretch 4s in the Big Ten and is probably better suited to defending wings, where he can use his length to frustrate them on the perimeter. It was surprising that Hunter got so many minutes at the 4 in the first half and Jordan Geronimo did not play at all after his terrific performance against Iowa. With Rutgers getting a lot of what it wants offensively, it might be time to give the freshman some run in the second half and see if he can provide a spark, as he did against the Hawkeyes. Despite the rough defensive performance in the first half, this game is still winnable for the Hoosiers, but they'll have to find a way to get consistent stops.