Hickey: Indiana is softer than Velveeta, and Mike Woodson can't fix that
Mike Woodson’s first season at Indiana was a major success.
It’s a testament to how far the Hoosiers have fallen that winning a game in the First Four before getting blistered by Saint Mary’s could be classified in such a manner. But that’s Archie Miller’s legacy. Woodson made it feel like that had all been a bad dream.
Indiana’s success in Year 1 had more to do with grit than talent. Trayce Jackson-Davis was the lone Hoosier to be named All-Big Ten — and it was second team. No other Hoosier even earned an honorable mention on the coaches’ all-conference team.
But Woodson’s team made up for it by hounding opponents defensively. KenPom rated the Hoosiers as 24th nationally in defensive efficiency.
Opponents were especially lost in the paint, making 44% of their 2-point attempts. Indiana’s defense ranked 10th nationally in 2-point field goal percentage. The Hoosiers hadn’t finished in the top 10 in 2-point defense since 2001, when Mike Davis coached Bobby Knight’s final group of recruits.
The next year, Davis and the Hoosiers made a run all the way to the national championship game. It remains the program’s most recent Final Four appearance.
Though the Final Four was a bit of a lofty goal for this year’s group, the expectation was that they could join the ’02 Hoosiers in winning a Big Ten title. With virtually every meaningful player returning from last year, Indiana was the overwhelming favorite to win the league.
After an 85-66 sandblasting at Penn State on Wednesday night, the Hoosiers are closer to Minnesota than they are a championship contender. Indiana is 1-4 in the B1G, and title aspirations are officially laughable.
This team will have to fight like Knight just to reach the NCAA Tournament. And that’s just the problem.
The Hoosiers have no fight.
The Big Ten’s softest team?
Stadiums often earn cool nicknames.
Back in the day, Houston’s Astrodome was known as The House of Pain. Kansas’ Phog Allen Fieldhouse sounds far more ominous when just called “The Phog.”
In college football, you have The Swamp. The Big House. Death Valley. You get the idea.
This year, Indiana may need to give Assembly Hall a moniker like The Pillow Factory or The Fondue Pot. This Indiana team is every bit as soft as those products.
Or perhaps the team itself needs a nickname. Kentucky once had Rupp’s Runts. Kansas had Danny and the Miracles. These can be Mike’s Marshmallow Men.
Wednesday’s 19-point loss at Penn State was the worst margin of defeat the Hoosiers have ever suffered against the Nittany Lions. That stat shouldn’t necessarily be the most troubling, since Micah Shrewsberry has Penn State playing at a level rarely reached by the program’s antecedents.
The more troubling detail: Indiana has allowed 80 points in 3 consecutive Big Ten games for the first time since 1998.
Even Tom Crean’s first IU team, which was constructed from walk-ons and duct tape following NCAA sanctions, played better defense. Those overmatched Hoosiers, who went 1-17 in league play, allowed 80 points a total of 3 times that entire tortured conference season.
This team, which succeeded entirely because of its defending last year, has already matched that mark in 5 games.
Penn State shot an outrageous 58.1% from 3-point range and 54% from the field on Wednesday. And though the Nittany Lions were obviously on fire, more than half of their 31 3-point attempts came with a Hoosier defender nowhere in sight or flying in from off of the TV screen with a late closeout.
Woodson’s game plan against the offense that ranks 9th in the country in 3-point shooting was bad. Penn State was rarely forced to drive into Jackson-Davis, who is the lone strength remaining on this defense. But Indiana’s effort was even worse.
And that seems unlikely to change.
With seniors Xavier Johnson and Race Thompson both out of the lineup indefinitely, Indiana has to play twice as hard as it did with those leaders in the lineup. Instead, the Hoosiers appear to be going about half as hard.
In fact, they seem more preoccupied with what’s being said about them.
On Tuesday, multiple Indiana players took to Instagram to gripe and moan about a negative but innocuous post from the Barstool Sports Indiana fans account.
View this post on Instagram
Though it’s not a supportive message, it’s also not throwing any player or the team under the bus. It’s just an expression of understandable frustration.
Ignore it. Or save it for the locker room.
A team with heart would look at the message, say, “Screw you guys” and come out on fire the next game. Instead, many Hoosiers stuck with the “Screw you guys” in responding to the post without bothering to transfer it to the game.
Xavier Johnson shared a middle finger emoji. Race Thompson and Anthony Leal chimed in with comments. But it was Miller Kopp who spoke loudest.
“Bunch of pencil neck clowns on this app,” Kopp wrote. “Look us in the eyes and you’ll be quiet as can be. Guarantee that.”
That’s a welcome bit of bravado — if it can be backed up. Kopp scored 5 points in 29 minutes at Penn State.
At the moment, a team of pencil-necked geeks would presumably look Indiana’s players in the eyes and calmly drain a 3. Because all of those Indiana players are at least 4 feet away from the shooter.
Can Mike Woodson fix the problem?
Realistically, Indiana needs to claw its way to a 9-11 record in conference play to warrant NCAA Tournament consideration. That means the Hoosiers need to go at least 8-7 the rest of the way. And at the moment, there are not 8 sure wins on the remainder of their schedule.
Saturday’s game against Wisconsin at The Pillow Factory, er, Assembly Hall, is a must-win. Illinois and Michigan State loom thereafter. Those games won’t end well while Indiana is short-handed.
A trip to Minnesota seems like an obvious win, but the Gophers have lost their past 2 games by a combined 5 points.
Minnesota is a bad team. But Ben Johnson’s group is developing a will to win that’s certainly stronger than Indiana’s at the moment. When you watch Minnesota’s games against Wisconsin and Nebraska, you notice the effort. That’ll go far against a team like Indiana, which will wake up at halftime.
It’s plausible that Indiana will go 2-6 or 3-5 in its next stretch of 8 games. Maybe even worse. And if that happens, it will take a heck of a finishing kick just to reach the Tourney.
Indiana’s defense is 11th in the B1G in defensive efficiency, 13th in effective field goal percentage, 12th in 3-point percentage and dead last in steal percentage. A year ago, the Hoosiers finished 1st in efficiency, 2nd in effective field goal percentage, 4th in 3-point percentage and 7th in steal percentage.
The absence of Johnson and Thompson unquestionably contributes to the decline. But it would help if their replacements played like they cared both are missing. Defense is effort. Indiana has none.
Rutgers and Northwestern are unlikely Big Ten contenders this season because they leave it on the floor every game.
Indiana, it seems, prefers to leave it all on the ‘gram. And that might be beyond a coachable fix.