BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – For the third time this season, Indiana was favored in a Big Ten home game at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall and didn't get the job done. Games like Rutgers on Sunday – and Northwestern and Purdue before them – they needed to be wins.
Because of that, the Hoosiers are now 9-7 overall and 4-5 in the Big Ten. Do that simple math. Win those three home games, and the storyline for this season is completely different. But it is what it is, back on the bubble, and consistently inconsistent.
This is an Indiana team, you have to remember, that was picked to finish in the bottom half of the Big Ten. Most nights, they are playing teams with as much talent – or more – than Indiana has.
And every game becomes exactly the same thing. You have to be at your best, or you're not going to win.
"Every single game in this league requires you not only to play hard and play tough and play smart, but you also have to play well, too,” Indiana coach Archie Miller said.
Indiana wasn't at its best on Sunday. Not even close. Sure, they played well in stretches and the entertaining game did come down to the final minute. But too many things kept going wrong – both on the court and between Miller's ears – for the Hoosiers to get a win they so desperately needed, especially after that big win at No. 4 Iowa on Thursday night.
After watching the game live in Assembly Hall and then watching the replay early this morning, three issues really jumped out for me. They were:
1. Blatant defensive miscues, especially on threes
No one has played more games in Archie Miller's system than Al Durham, the senior guard from Lilburn, Ga. He does a lot of good things, but he's not a very good on-ball defender against the league's best slashing point guards. He got beat off the bounce several times on Sunday.
What was even worse, though, was that he failed to cover three-point shooters well, getting lost in the lane often, or making communication errors. There were at least three times where he left his man and didn't help elsewhere, then didn't close out quick enough to make a factor on his shooter.
That's not the system, folks. It's a failure to execute the system.
Indiana's defense as a whole hasn't been very good during the past month, outside of the second half at Iowa, of course. It starts out front. Armaan Franklin is Indiana's best defender, but this team defensive slip completely coincides with his ankle injury, which he re-aggravated again early Sunday but gutted through it anyway. And Rob Phinisee, a great weak-side defender, has to battle a lot still in isolation situations.
It was nice to see Khristian Lander hit a couple of threes Sunday, but he's really struggling on the defensive end. He's young, and we get that. These veteran Big Ten guards are tough on him, and he's not ready to stifle them on slashes to the basket. Not yet anyway.
Rutgers had eight threes on Sunday, and most were uncontested. There's no question in my book that was the difference in the game to me. That's where Indiana's defense needs to be better.
2. Struggles offensively for Trayce Jackson-Davis
Trayce Jackson-Davis is averaging 20.1 points and 8.7 rebounds a game and there is absolutely no doubt that he's Indiana's best player. But there are certain teams that are capable of making life difficult on him, and Rutgers is one of them.
Myles Johnson is the big reason why. Rutgers' 6-foot-11 junior center is the best defensive player in the country in my book. He's a natural shot-blocker, has great footwork and defends even quick guys like Jackson-Davis without fouling.
Johnson had five blocks Sunday, three on Jackson-Davis. That's why Trayce only had 13 points, which was still a far cry better than a year ago, when he only scored four points in a 59-50 loss.
Jackson-Davis' patented spin moves don't work on Johnson because he slides right along with him to the rim. Pump fakes don't work either, because he doesn't leave his feet. This is a game where Jackson-Davis has to be willing to take the mid-range jumpers from the elbow, because Johnson isn't stepping out there for fear of the drive-by.
The old guy in me who grew up watching great power forwards like Karl Malone and Tim Duncan nail those 14-footers like layups is really all that's missing from Trayce's game. We thought we were going to see more of that this season, but we haven't.
It's not too late. He's such a talented player, and I love watching him play. That extra piece to his game would set him over the top – especially when staring down Johnson.
3. Wrong coaching decision in final minute
Rutgers had a 73-70 lead and the ball with 43 seconds remaining after Jackson-Davis had made two free throws.
Archie Miller decided to let it play out instead of fouling right away, and I thought that was a huge mistake. I said it live in realtime too, not after the fact. No 20/20 hindsight here.
Rutgers is the worst free-throw shooting team in the Big Ten, shooting just 57.9 percent, even worse than Indiana. This five-game losing streak they were on could be directly related to poor foul shooting. You have to know that, and do something about it. The Hoosiers hadn't been able to get closer than three points, so why not start fouling and stretch out the game?
Miller thought otherwise.
Two things were in play for me there. I mean, come on, make Rutgers beat you from the line. Secondly, if you're going to let the clock run down and hope for a miss, then you have to get the rebound. Indiana has proven all year that rebounding could be a problem. They lost the Florida State game in overtime by giving up offensive rebounds, and even gave up a basket to Rutgers at the first-half buzzer on a rebound.
Of course that should have been a factor in Miller's decision-making. Rutgers' Myles Johnson got the rebound over Race Thompson and kicked it out to Geo Baker, who was fouled. He made 1-of-2 to make it 74-70 with eight seconds to go, and the game was over.
What if he would have made 1-of-2 at 40 seconds? And then again at 25 or 15? He's a 62 percent free throw shooter. Ron Harper Jr., who had the ball in his hands too in the final minute, is 64 percent.
Play the foul game and give yourself a chance.
To me, this loss was far more about execution than effort. I give a lot of props to Armaan Franklin and his 14 points for playing through an obvious ankle injury. The fans who criticized him Sunday disgusted me. He's a warrior in my book. We touched on covering the three and getting better shots for Trayce, and that is execution over system for me, too.
Miller messed up the final minute in my book. You have to play the odds there, and he didn't do it. Indiana really never got a final possession, and fouling might have given them two or three.
The gloom-and-doomers easily forget that Rutgers was ranked No. 11 in the country at one time. They have a lot of talent, especially in getting to the basket and guarding the ball. This was always going to be a tough game, and the Scarlet Knights executed a few more times – just a few more – than Indiana did.
And that was enough.
Related stories on Indiana basketball
- RUTGERS BEATS INDIANA: Here's the game story from Rutgers' 74-70 win over Indiana on Sunday at Assembly Hall. CLICK HERE
- LIVE BLOG FROM GAME: Re-live the game in real time. CLICK HERE
- MICHIGAN PAUSES FOR2 WEEKS: The state health department has put Michigan athletics on pause for two weeks, which means Indiana's game at Ann Arbor on Saturday is postponed. CLICK HERE