By Aidan Kunst —
Down three with mere seconds remaining, Indiana needed a stop. They ostensibly got it, in the form of Trayce Jackson-Davis switching on to Rutgers’ Ron Harper Jr. and forcing a long miss.
But just forcing the miss wasn’t enough. You have to box out, locate the ball, and secure a rebound. The Hoosiers did none of the above, allowing Rutgers center Myles Johnson to tap the ball to himself and then throw it back outside, leading to a foul and free throws to end the game.
Moments like this, where Indiana failed to do the little things, to close out hard, to take the smart shot, to pull the ball back out instead of forcing a long pass, plagued the Hoosiers throughout Sunday’s 74-70 loss to the Scarlet Knights of Rutgers.
It was a strange game, one where both teams had long scoring droughts and unimpressive stretches of play. The teams looked fairly even throughout much of the game. But Rutgers had the edge in one crucial metric: toughness.
The Scarlet Knights simply wanted it more than Indiana. Rutgers had yet to win a game in 2021, and it needed to snap out of a five-game losing streak. Steve Pikiell’s group, which featured several new starters, were desperate.
Time and time again it was Rutgers getting dribble penetration, Rutgers getting to the rim with ease, Rutgers diving on the floor for a loose ball. Indiana gave up 1.194 points per possession, their worst mark of the season.
“For 40 minutes defensively, we had a hard time guarding the ball,” Indiana coach Archie Miller said.
Rutgers is a solid team that was getting healthy and hungry to end its losing skid — so it’s no surprise that they came ready to play. What’s somewhat shocking is Indiana’s lack of an ability to match that intensity at times as they looked to build off of a win over No. 4 just days earlier.
For Jackson-Davis, Indiana’s leader and All-American candidate, it never came together. He finished 4-10 from the field for 13 points and seven rebounds while battling Rutgers defensive stalwart Johnson.
Miller thought it was less about Jackson-Davis, and more about those around him.
“I don’t think we got Trayce the ball enough tonight,” Miller said after his big man had his fourth lowest amount of field goal attempts in a game this season.
But regardless of Johnson’s defensive prowess, Jackson-Davis has to take over a game where his teammates are unable to break their man down. When he comes out flat, the whole team follows his lead. That was a problem Sunday.
In the Miller era, there has been a problem with losses after big wins. The Hoosiers are 2-9 after wins over Top 25 teams under Miller and after a huge, signature win at Iowa on Thursday, Indiana came out without enough energy in one of the few remaining games this season the Hoosiers will be favored in.
It is a tough pill to swallow for an Indiana team that doesn’t start a single freshman. It is a veteran, battle-tested group that shouldn’t have letdown games. And yet, in a huge game with tournament implications, Indiana had just three players in the positive plus/minus.
And none of them — Khristian Lander, Anthony Leal, and Jordan Geronimo — were part of that experienced group.
Perhaps momentum is a figment of the media’s imagination. Maybe putting together several wins in a row doesn’t mean much, or isn’t even realistic in this COVID-19 season and a stacked Big Ten. Yes Indiana was favored on Sunday, but Rutgers was 7-1 earlier this year, and No. 11 in the country before losing five in a row. There will be no days off.
“It’s not about momentum,” Armaan Franklin said. “In this league, you play good teams every night. Sometimes, it doesn’t go your way.”
There is something to be said, though, for consistency. Under Archie Miller, Indiana has been consistently inconsistent. This team clearly has the potential to play with the best. You don’t beat Iowa on the road if you’re a bad team.
But until Indiana finds a way to win these games, to show up to play against everyone and impose their will, things will not move forward as a program. There is still time this season, but IU does not have many games with better odds for a win than Rutgers.
And they didn’t have any games more likely to result in a loss than Iowa.
So, better buckle up. Where this thing goes from here is anyone’s guess.
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