CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – What's become blatantly obvious during this first week of the Big Ten season is that just about every game is going to come down to the wire. The league is that good – and that balanced.
What's that mean for Indiana? Well, right now, that's a big problem because what we've learned in these first two league games is that the Hoosiers are having a real problem scoring points down the stretch, and it's cost them in a huge way in losses to Northwestern and Illinois.
Those struggles were blatantly obvious on Saturday, when the Hoosiers lost to Illinois, 69-60. Indiana had a four-point lead late in the second half, but couldn't hold on. Illinois' Ayo Dosunmu had a lot to do with that, scoring 17 points in the final nine minutes.
But you have to match that, or least come close, to win in this league, especially on the road. Indiana could have won Saturday's game. They played well enough in long stretches to do that, especially on the defensive end.
But you've got to finish, and Indiana didn't do that.
After the final media timeout, Indiana was down three points. In their final seven possessions, though, they made just one field goal.
They needed to answer – and that's not an answer. And because of that, Indiana is 0-2 in the league, tied for LAST with four others. Staggering down the stretch is not a good look.
Finishing needs to get better quickly, and no one knows that better than Archie Miller. I asked, he answered.
"It's a good point,'' Miller said, his head bowed through all of my question. "I think offensively at the end of games, when you're in a one- or two-possession game, one, you have to be able to get your best player a good look, you have to be able to give your best player an opportunity to play and get fouled.
"They're so unique defensively that it's very difficult obviously to get a big guy an opportunity unless you're going to shoot a jumper because you're going to deal with contact around the rim (from 7-foot center Kofi Cockburn, and others). We did get two or three good looks, where we had our opportunities, but then we had some wasted possessions.''
They sure did.
Here's how that last four minutes went down:
After the media timeout, Indiana trailed 60-57 with 3:55 to go. The Illini made two free throws, and then Race Thompson got to the rim on a well-designed play, but missed the layup.
On the next possession, freshman Trey Galloway had an open three-pointer from the left wing, but it rattled in an out at the 2:55 mark. The third possession, Armaan Franklin tried to make a pass inside to Trayce Jackson-Davis, but it was tipped and Illinois recovered.
Then there was a weird possession on the other end. Indiana's defense was solid and Dosunmu bobbled the ball with the shot clock running down. Franklin dove for it, but Dosunmu beat him to it and then drained a three-pointer as the shot clock expired to make it 65-57.
Franklin answered with a three-pointer, Indiana's only basket down the stretch, but the Jackson-Davis missed a short jumper, and Al Durham missed two ill-advised three-pointers
Seven possessions, three lousy points.
"I think late in the game, in the last 90 seconds as they grew the lead, we tried to maybe shoot a three-pointer that maybe miscued or what not,'' Miller said. "I really believe that we have to be a better finishing team in the last three to four minutes.
"Part of it is we have to do a better job of being able to get the ball to Trayce and see if he can get us a basket. And the second thing is, obviously, we have to be able to get another quality shot from another guy.''
Indiana has been mostly good on defense this season, and that was true even on Saturday. They held an Illinois team to 69 points that was averaging 89.3 coming into the game. Outside of Dosunmu's craziness down the stretch – 17 points in nine-plus minutes — Indiana did enough on defense to win this game.
But the offense is another story. Right now, Indiana has only two players – sophomores Trayce Jackson-Davis and Armaan Franklin – who are scoring double figures. Jackson-Davis had his toughest offensive game of the season, scoring just 11 points on 3-of-11 shooting. He got good looks at the rim, but many of those shots were challenged hard by Cockburn, too, and they didn't fall.
"Trayce isn't going to go 3-of-13 every game,” Miller said. "It wasn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but we had our plays."
Franklin, once again, was spectacular. Aside from dogging Dosunmu on the defensive end, he hit 5-of-6 three-pointers and had a career-high 23 points. The rest of the team was 2-for-12 from long distance.
Franklin is quite literally the only person who can be trusted from the perimeter right now, and that's part of the problem. He is 17-for-26 from three-point range in the past four games, a 65 percent clip.
The rest of the team is 17-for-59 during that same stretch, and eight of those came in the blowout over North Alabama.
Others simply need to step up. We talked ad nauseum after the Northwestern loss about Durham and Phinisee not doing much, and they each went scoreless in the first half Saturday. Durham had five points and Phinisee four in the second-half run that got Indiana the lead, but they need to do more.
Freshman Trey Galloway played well Saturday after getting the start over Phinisee. He played 32 minutes with no turnovers, and he had four points and four rebounds. He's starting to feel comfortable out there, which was evident when he knocked down two three-pointers in the run against Northwestern.
He didn't hesitate when he got looks on Saturday, either, even down the stretch. That late three-pointer, it rattled in and out. Miller had a perfect view of it she he launched right in front of the IU bench, and he was sure it was in. He needs to continue to keep firing away — and knock down those shots in the final minutes.
Race Thompson needs to step it up, too. He can't play 30 minutes and score four points. He needs to make that layup in the final minute.
Those final minutes, they're going to matter most every single night during this 20-game Big Ten season. They won't be many easy games – if any at all.
Down the stretch, they need to finish.
Miller was exactly right about it starting with Jackson-Davis in money time. He's their best player, and he's a clutch player. No one doubts his skill, or his desire to win.
What's on him is that he can't rely on scoring every basket at the rim. He worked hard the entire offseason to refine a mid-range jump shot, and that needs to be part of his game. He had many catches or hand-offs at or inside the elbow, and Cockburn sagged back on him, waiting for a spin move or a direct drive.
He just needs to start taking – and hitting — those little jumpers. That's part of finishing. Franklin will hit, too. And the others? It's time. Time to start playing on the offensive end, too.
Because if not, wins are going to be very hard to come by. Night after night after night.
Related stories on Indiana basketball
- ILLINOIS TOPS HOOSIERS: Ayo Dosunmu scores 30 points and leads a second-half rally as No. 18 Illinois beats Indiana 69-60 on Saturday at the State Farm Center in Champaign, Ill. CLICK HERE
- LIVE BLOG: Follow along with all the highs and lows of Indiana's game with Illinois on Saturday. CLICK HERE
- INDIANA SCHEDULE: Here is the complete Indiana basketball schedule, with game times and TV, and links to all game stories and Tom Brew columns. CLICK HERE