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‘Fractured’ Indiana basketball falls to pieces at Rutgers

Up until less than a week ago, there was exactly one thing about his Indiana team that Archie Miller could say was foundational. One thing that he could count on no matter what happened.

He couldn’t promise that his Hoosiers could shoot the ball, especially not from outside. He couldn’t promise that they would defend as well as his best Dayton teams did, especially on the perimeter. Sometimes they’d turn the ball over too much. Sometimes they’d miss free throws. Sometimes they’d start slow. Sometimes they’d fade down the stretch.

But he could trust that they would fight. They wouldn’t fold if they fell behind by double digits or if they blew a double-digit lead. They could go on six or seven-minute scoring droughts but find just enough offense to make the game competitive again, at least for a while. They lost almost as much as they won, but they very rarely got embarrassed.

But after a 74-63 loss at the hands of Rutgers on Wednesday night in New Jersey, Miller couldn’t deny the reality. His Hoosiers had completely wilted and been run out of gym in a game of critical importance against an opponent that entered Wednesday night in positions very similar to them in both the Big Ten standings and the NCAA Tournament picture.

And at perhaps the worst possible moment, the team Miller is coaching seems lost and broken.

“The thing we’ve really hung our hat on is we could really scrap and compete and make it anybody’s game,” Miller said. “In our last two second halves in particular when things haven’t gone well, our defense and just our tightness, our ability to communicate, our response hasn’t given us a chance. … We tend to sort of get more into ourselves. We tend not to get back. We tend right now not to fiercely compete how we have to do it to stay in the game.”

The Indiana team that handled Minnesota 82-72 in a battle of bubble teams at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall last week already feels like a distant memory. After collapsing on the defensive end in the second half of Saturday’s loss against Michigan State, the Hoosiers fell apart against Rutgers on both ends on Wednesday after another promising start and they never came close to recovering.

The more Miller talked about it Wednesday night, the more deflated he sounded, and for good reason. With three regular season games left on the schedule, the Hoosiers are 12-11 overall, 7-9 in the Big Ten. The strength of the conference and the uneven nature of the COVID-riddled 2020-21 season gives them more hope of an NCAA Tournament berth than that level of mediocrity would ordinarily provide. However, the Hoosiers are down to three regular season games — one at home Saturday against No. 3 Michigan and two on the road the following week at Michigan State and at Purdue before the Big Ten tournament the following week.

It’s hard to imagine the Hoosiers getting in if they don’t win at least two of the three, and the way they’re playing right now it’s hard to imagine them winning a single one of them. And if they fail to make it and continue their downward spiral, Miller’s future as the Hoosiers’ head coach becomes even more uncertain. His hefty buyout and the pandemic’s nationwide squeeze on athletic department finances could spare him the axe in 2021, but a late-season collapse in his fourth year on the job will be difficult for him to ultimately overcome in the long run.

“I think it’s the first time all season long where our team has really looked fractured,” Miller said. “Where we didn’t know how to compete. What to do. That goes back to me. I have to figure this out and get our team back up off the mat here.”

Just as they did Saturday when they took a 19-6 lead on Michigan State early in the first half, it was Indiana that put Rutgers on the mat in the early going on Wednesday night. Thanks to four early 3-pointers by senior guard Aljami Durham including one that he banked late in the shot clock, the Hoosiers made nine of their first 15 shots and took a 23-8 lead with 9:42 to go in the first half. Rutgers started 4 of 13 from the field and Indiana was in total control on both ends.

But the Hoosiers’ unraveling was swift and it was devastating.

After missing their first seven 3-point shots, Rutgers finished the first half making seven of its final eight and hit its first two of the second half as well. They made 17 of their 25 field goals between the 7:58 mark of the first half and the 12:23 mark of the first half.

And when Rutgers’ offense ignited, Indiana’s froze. After making 9 of their first 15 shots, the Hoosiers made nine of their next 40 in between Durham’s fourth and fifth 3-pointer of the game, which came with just 3:05 to go in the game. Rutgers outscored Indiana 62-27 in that stretch to take a 70-50 lead.

Lots went wrong for Indiana in that period. Sophomore guard Armaan Franklin, the team’s second leading scorer, aggravated his sore left ankle late in the first half and didn’t come back in the second half. He left the game with zero points on 0 of 3 shooting. Point guards Rob Phinisee and Khristian Lander were healthy but still couldn’t put the ball in the bucket, combining to also score zero points on 0 of 10 shooting. Durham finished with 20 points and sophomore center Trayce Jackson-Davis scored 21, but the rest of the team had just 22 on 8 of 33 shooting. Freshman Jordan Geronimo scored eight of those points on 3 of 4 shooting and all of his buckets came in the game’s final 2:23.

The Hoosiers turned the ball over 13 times and saw 10 of their shots blocked and didn’t block a single Rutgers attempt. The Scarlet Knights finished with 22 fast-break points and nine dunks and every insult added to injury and led the Hoosiers to shrink further and further into their shells.

“When things aren’t going well,” Miller said. “whether it’s a lack of confidence offensively or things become difficult for us, our response isn’t to run harder, to talk more, to concentrate more, to talk about the things that we can control. … When things don’t go our way, we don’t get a little bit tighter. We don’t get a little bit smarter. We get a little bit more fractured.”

Miller said he needs better player leadership right now to keep that from happening, and there isn’t an obvious source from which to get that. They have some veterans such as Durham, Jackson-Davis, Franklin and redshirt junior forward Race Thompson who provide some quieter forms of leadership, but none who provides a more forceful variety. He seemed to suggest it wasn’t the sort of leadership he could provide himself.

“We’re searching for an emotional guy,” Miller said. “A guy that can really be looked to that can rally us. We’re a quiet group in general. I don’t think we have an alpha personality. I definitely think right now we need some guys to step up within our own ranks, within our own locker room. We have to pull some things together, because I do think we lack confidence at certain times when things don’t go well.”

Late February isn’t the best time to have to find confidence, and the Hoosiers are almost out of time to fix what is clearly and deeply broken.

“I think we can get it back,” Miller said. “… We have a big finish. We have a lot of things at stake. We have a lot of things right in front of us. We’ve worked very hard to get right there. We have a great opportunity Saturday at home. But it’s not going to work in any game we play the rest of the season if our competitiveness and our concentration when things aren’t going well doesn’t come back around.”

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