Photo credit - University of Arizona Athletics

Arizona’s inside dominance gives IU a taste of its own medicine

Arizona beat Indiana at its own game.

This was always going to be a challenging game for IU. The Wildcats are No. 10 in the AP Poll for a reason. They’re really good.

So it’s not a wholly shocking result that the 14th-ranked Hoosiers lost to them. It’s not a game that should change IU’s season-long outlook.

But while not completely out of nowhere, it was a bit jarring to see the difference between the teams. Because Arizona beat IU in the areas the Hoosiers typically lean on to win games.

“The game was won in the paint,” IU head coach Mike Woodson said. “They were the better team tonight in the paint.”

Indiana (8-2) is a team built to play through the paint. The Hoosiers long for consistently reliable outside shooting, but no matter how that part of the game fares, they know they can give themselves a chance inside. That’s largely thanks to All-American Trayce Jackson-Davis.

But Arizona (8-1) neutralized Jackson-Davis through double-teams and triple-teams. He faced constant pressure anytime he touched the ball. Between Oumar Ballo and Azuolas Tubelis, the Wildcats severely limited Jackson-Davis’ impact on the game. He had trouble both getting off quality shots and finding outlet passes.

Jackson-Davis scored 11 points, tied for a season low with the Jackson State game, when he was playing through an injury and played just 19 minutes.

Race Thompson had a strong game, leading IU with 16 points, but that was primarily on outside shooting. He didn’t fare any better in the paint. Malik Reneau looked overmatched in his 14 minutes on the floor.

And on the other end, Ballo and Tubelis just bullied IU inside. Yes, some calls went in Arizona’s favor, but that wasn’t why IU lost. These were the best forwards Indiana has faced so far this season (with Armando Bacot clearly injured when IU beat North Carolina). And IU just couldn’t stop them.

“Their bigs are dominant bigs. They’re good,” Woodson said. “There’s a reason why they’re averaging 19 and 20 (points) a game between the two of them. So we had to battle that. I thought they got the better of our bigs tonight. I just do. We didn’t have any answer for them.”

Ballo led the country in field goal percentage (76.92) entering this game. He shot 6 for 9 for 15 points. Tubelis led the Wildcats with 21 points on a 9-of-16 clip. Overall, Arizona scored 42 points in the paint while IU had just 22. That disparity proved the biggest difference in the game.

Rebounding, as well, was a notable disparity. Ballo grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds, and Arizona out-rebounded IU 44-34. It’s just the second time this season the Hoosiers have lost the rebounding battle. Arizona’s physicality inside just proved too much for Indiana to overcome.

“It (Arizona) is a really good team,” Thompson said. “They’ve got big guys. And I think they just beat us up on the glass a little bit and that hurt us. If we win the rebounding game, I think it’s a way better game and we have a better chance.”

Regardless of what’s happening in the paint, or on offense in general, Indiana is built on defense and rebounding. If those things aren’t there — even just one of them — IU will have a hard time winning games. IU’s defense was just fine against Rutgers, but the Scarlet Knights dominated on the glass. IU lost.

On Saturday, Arizona bested IU in all three main components of its winning formula.

“They beat us at our own game,” Thompson said. “We pride ourselves on rebounding the ball and playing defense, and we let up too many points tonight.”

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