Indiana Is in Freefall, and There's No Simple Way to Turn Things Around
On the morning of Jan. 6, Indiana basketball was ranked 21st in the country, about to take on then-No. 2 Michigan. The Hoosiers were 12–2 with wins over Marquette, Louisville and Butler, their only blemishes being a one-point loss at Arkansas and an understandable blowout at the hands of Duke in Durham.
Things were looking up in Bloomington, just a season and a half after the school had fired longtime coach Tom Crean and hired Dayton’s Archie Miller. Indiana was a No. 5 seed in SI.com’s first Bracket Watch of the year and figured to sail into the NCAA tournament, even if there were setbacks along the way in a loaded Big Ten.
Flash-forward not even four weeks later, and Indiana is 12–9 overall, 3–7 in the Big Ten. The Hoosiers have lost seven straight games, the most recent of which came at Rutgers on Wednesday night to drop them below the Scarlet Knights and into a tie for 10th place in the conference standings. One player was recently suspended indefinitely for “not meeting program standards,” while others continue to be hobbled by injuries that threaten to torpedo a once-promising season.
Still, this is a team that has home-state star Romeo Langford—a likely top-10 pick in June’s NBA draft—and one of the Big Ten’s best big men in Juwan Morgan. So how did things get to such a low point so fast?
Let’s run through the issues plaguing Indiana of late…
1. Where’s the Offense?
The Hoosiers were never an elite offensive team—the best they’ve looked against major competition this season was a home destruction of Marquette on Nov. 14 when they rang up 96 points (1.28 per possession)—but they’ve gone from strong to shaky in a heartbeat. Since posting seven straight games with more than 1.0 points per possession (PPP), the last of which came on Jan. 11, Indiana’s offense has plunged from 29th to 75th in kenpom.com’s efficiency rankings. It’s the result of a dismal five-game stretch, which included a disastrous outing at home against Michigan, when the Wolverines raced out to a 20–2 start and the Hoosiers shot 27.6% for the game, and a nine-minute scoring drought against Rutgers that spanned both halves and enabled a 22–0 run by the Scarlet Knights.
One of Indiana’s most pressing problems on offense is its three-point shooting. The Hoosiers have been the Big Ten’s worst team beyond the arc in league play and have topped the 40% mark just once in their last eight games, connecting on 20% or less in five of them. Langford is wildly talented and excels at the rim but has largely struggled from the outside, shooting 23% for the year, and recently went 0 for 12 in a four-game span. His 78 attempts on the season lead the team; Morgan, Rob Phinisee and Al Durham are all fairly solid in more limited tries.
The Hoosiers are much better inside the arc, where their 55.6% field-goal percentage is 30th nationally. But they rebound only 26.3% of their misses from the floor and are far from dependable at the free throw line (65% as a team, which ranks 316th). Also concerning is Indiana’s offense in transition, which ranks 276th in PPP, per Synergy Sports data. The Hoosiers’ shooting woes are exacerbated in those situations, and they’re turning it over 17.1% of the time in transition. It all adds up to a perilous formula for a team that has a habit of trying to dig itself out of holes, often reverting to desperation threes in a game’s closing minutes following a late push.
2. Where’s the Defense?
Home to seven of the top 30 offenses, the Big Ten isn’t exactly a league where you can get by without getting consistent defensive stops when you need them. As the Hoosiers have broken down on offense, their defense has slumped as well, dropping from No. 22 on kenpom’s efficiency rankings on Jan. 6 to No. 45 now.
The difference here is fairly pronounced: after allowing 1.0 PPP or more just three times in its first 14 games (one of which was to juggernaut Duke), Indiana did it six games in a row during its losing streak, narrowly avoiding a seventh in the loss to Rutgers. With 6'10" forward De'Ron Davis having missed essentially all of 2019 due to injury, opponents are taking advantage of the Hoosiers’ lack of size inside, doing more damage there than from the perimeter. In Big Ten play, Indiana ranks 10th in the league in two-point defense, with teams hitting 50% of their twos vs. 32% of their threes.
One of the main problems with having Davis out is that as good as Morgan is on offense, he’s undersized at the five and can face unfavorable matchups on defense. Per Synergy, opponents are scoring 43.2% of the time against Morgan, the highest rate on the team, and 39% of the time against power forward Justin Smith, with both landing in a “below average” percentile on defense. On Wednesday night, Rutgers repeatedly attacked the Hoosiers in the paint, lobbing the ball inside and taking 82% of their shots from two-point range.
The list of big men in the league that have feasted on the Hoosiers continues to grow: Maryland’s Bruno Fernando scored a career-high 25, Northwestern’s Dererk Pardon had 24 and 17 in two games, Purdue’s 7'3" Matt Haarms had 12 off the bench and Rutgers’s Eugene Omoruyi had 14 on Wednesday. Yet between a lack of depth (see below) down low and the vital need for Morgan’s offense, Indiana appears to be caught between a rock and a hard place.
3. A Dearth of Depth
As good as Langford and Morgan are, combining to average 33.7 points and 13.4 rebounds, the dynamic inside-out duo can only take this team so far. Indiana has been dealt brutal injury luck this season; beyond Davis, freshman point guard Rob Phinisee missed time and had to work his way back from a concussion, forwards Jerome Hunter and Race Thompson have yet to play this season and a number of other players have dealt with temporary knocks (against Rutgers, the team suited up just nine scholarship players).
The recent suspension of junior guard Devonte Green took away the team’s fourth-leading scorer, while Saint Mary’s grad transfer Evan Fitzner has only shot 32% from three and seen his minutes wane after being expected to provide a perimeter boost this year. The result of all this has been a thin bench and short rotation, with players like Clifton Moore, Damezi Anderson and Jake Forrester occasionally seeing spot minutes to help the starters get a breather.
As bleak as things look for Indiana right now, if there’s a silver lining it’s that the calendar is only now about to hit February. Losing seven straight in conference play speaks for itself, but the Hoosiers are still surviving in the NCAA tournament picture thanks to their body of work from before the new year. That will change with a few more losses—and things may get worse before they get better. A visit to East Lansing to face a Michigan State team coming off a loss awaits on Saturday, and a visit from an offensive-minded Iowa team comes next after that.
There’s still time for the Hoosiers to salvage this season, but the hourglass has flipped and the sand is on its descent, and there’s nothing in Indiana’s recent play to suggest an overnight turnaround is coming. It would be a shame for college basketball to see a senior standout like Morgan and freshman star like Langford sit out March Madness during their last/only year in Bloomington, but with each Hoosier defeat, we get closer to that disappointing reality.