ATLANTA — When Indiana men’s basketball suffered a 20-point defeat against UConn nearly three weeks ago, the Hoosiers were simply outplayed by one of the best teams in the country.
But during IU’s game against Auburn on Saturday in the Holiday Hoopsgiving, the Hoosiers weren’t just outplayed. The Tigers exposed them, and ran away with a 104-76 win at State Farm Arena in Atlanta.
“Got a lot of work still in front of us. I’ve always said that,” IU head coach Mike Woodson said after the game. “We’ve got to take it a practice at a time, a game at a time, and build. This won’t set us back. We’ll rebound from it and keep marching forward.”
This was the third straight game Xavier Johnson missed with a left leg injury, and Indiana (7-2) missed his presence in this one far more than either of the others. Combined with freshman Jakai Newton still nursing the same knee injury that’s kept him out the entire season thus far, IU’s guard depth is very thin. Johnson’s absence has pushed freshman Gabe Cupps into the starting lineup, thrust CJ Gunn into a more important role off the bench, and forced Woodson to insert Anthony Leal into the rotation.
And the drop-off those things have led to in Indiana’s backcourt was as noticeable against Auburn as ever. The Tigers (6-2) played a full-court press defense, which IU handled without much issue early in the game. But as Woodson had to begin rotating players in off the bench, and as fatigue grew, the Hoosiers had some trouble getting the ball in. They committed six turnovers in the last seven minutes of the first half, several of which were because of the press.
That helped Auburn not only come back from its early 22-10 deficit, but exponentially grow its lead. The Tigers closed the first half on a 32-7 run to build up a 52-34 advantage at halftime.
“We mixed in pressure all night long. Without Xavier Johnson, they’re thinner at guard. And so the idea about pressure is — it takes a cumulative effect. So at the end of the first half, after those guards were pressed all game, they coughed a couple up,” Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said. “They turned it over four or five times late in the first half that created that margin for us, and I think fatigue was a factor. If they had Xavier Johnson, a little bit more guard depth, they wouldn’t have been bothered as much by our pressure.”
Auburn’s backcourt deserves a lot of credit for its strong performance. It wasn’t just the full-court pressure. IU couldn’t keep up with the Tigers’ guards on the other end, either. Freshman Aden Holloway tied for the team lead with 24 points on a 7-for-11 clip. He, senior K.D. Johnson, and junior Denver Jones proved too difficult for Cupps, Gunn, Leal, and Trey Galloway to contain.
IU’s defensive issues weren’t only limited to the backcourt. The Hoosiers allowed 1.425 points per possession, and several of Auburn’s forwards had big games as well. But the quickness issue was a big theme of the game. And Malik Reneau said the biggest thing Indiana has to prioritize in combatting that problem is just locking in on defense.
“We’ve got to get back on defense. It’s a lot of plays where we’re losing our mans or we’re not knowing who we’re picking up on,” Reneau said. “I think we’ve got to sprint back on defense and be able to recognize who our man is and who’s in front of us at the time, and just get a body on a body so we can cover that 3-point line.”
3-point shooting continues to be a problem for the Hoosiers as well. They actually enjoyed one of their strongest offensive performances from beyond the arc of the season so far. They started the game by making three straight 3-pointers, and four of their first five. The shooters cooled off from there and the Hoosiers finished 6 for 17 overall, which is still their most made threes in any game this year, and their second-best shooting percentage from 3-point range so far.
And yet, the 3-point line was still a big difference in the game. That’s because Indiana had a lot of trouble guarding the 3-point line. The Tigers hit more threes (14) at a higher percentage (51.9) than any IU opponent this season.
The disparity in points from the 3-point line between Auburn and IU represented most of the difference on the scoreboard.
“I would say (Auburn was) not really letting our defense get set,” Cupps said. “It’s tough to get out to the 3-point line when they’re pushing it up without getting matched up. A lot of the times in transition, you’re trying to get back to the rim to take away layups. And then they had us scrambling to find their 3-point shooters.”
It didn’t help IU that outside of Reneau’s hot streak to open the second half, he and Kel’el Ware had one of their least efficient performances of the season. IU had trouble finishing inside at many points throughout Saturday’s game. And the stretch in the first half with both Reneau and Ware on the bench was when Auburn flipped the game around.
But the guard play was the difference in this game.
These are the types of teams Indiana would see in the NCAA Tournament, if it gets there. Teams with extremely athletic backcourts that can outpace opposing guards, and teams that can light it up from 3-point range. With Johnson out, those may be Indiana’s two biggest weaknesses as a team right now. IU’s style may be able to work in the Big Ten, but it gets tougher outside of the conference.
Some of the issues are makeup — the Hoosiers are who they are. Some of the problems will be alleviated when Johnson can return. Some of it is just effort and mentality — the mental toughness IU showed to constantly counter-punch at Michigan was not present in Atlanta.
All the Hoosiers can do is move on and try to improve. They have one more chance for a real non-conference résumé-booster, when they host Kansas next weekend.
They’ll have to be a lot better to pull that off.
“At the end of the day, it’s a long season. One game’s not going to determine how we play. We bounced back from the UConn game, and we had great strides there,” Reneau said. “We’re going to go back to the drawing board. We’ve got a week to work on Kansas. That’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to go in there, practice hard.”