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Indiana could be missing two starters in final go-around with Rutgers

Archie Miller already doesn’t feel great about this matchup.

The Hoosiers head into the Big Ten tournament at Lucas Oil Stadium as a No. 10 seed going up against a No. 7 seeded Rutgers team that has beaten the Hoosiers twice with the last loss coming by 11 points. The Hoosiers turned the ball over too much against the Scarlet Knights, they’ve had a hard time getting the ball to the rim, and they’ve had problems defending the dribble-drive on the other end. That’s not a good matchup for an Indiana team that, at 12-14 overall, 7-12 in the Big Ten, probably needs to win the whole tournament to earn an NCAA bid after five straight losses to end the regular season.

And you can tack on to that fact that it seems possible or maybe even likely that the Hoosiers will be playing without two of their top four scorers.

Sophomore guard Armaan Franklin, who is second on the team with 11.6 points per game and its best 3-point shooter at 45 percent, has been out since injuring his right heel and Achilles tendon late in the first half in the Hoosiers’ last game against Rutgers on Feb. 24. Miller said he’s making slow progress and it’s conceivable that he could be available but the Hoosiers aren’t banking on it.

“Armaan is still wait-and-see,” Miller said. “He’s day-to-day. He hasn’t done much. A little bit of shooting, which he did a little bit of shooting last week as well. We’re not counting on Armaan being available.”

Miller said he thinks there’s a better chance redshirt junior forward Race Thompson plays, even though he’s dealing with two injuries — a busted nose and a rolled ankle. He busted the nose in practice before the Rutgers game on Feb. 24, played through it with a mask, re-injured it on March 2 against Michigan State, got an operation on it and played through it again on Saturday at Purdue but then rolled the ankle and tried to play through that and was unsuccessful.

“Race is probably a little more banged up than Armaan right now,” Miller said. “… It’s really kind of eliminated him from being able to work with us a ton. Knowing Race and how he’s been all season and knowing how he’s been the last few weeks, as he hasn’t been 100 percent, if he can go, he’ll go. He’ll definitely probably give it a try.”

Franklin and Thompson are arguably the Hoosiers’ best two defensive players, tied as they are for the team lead in steals with 26. Franklin can handle bigger guards and Thompson can deal with versatile forwards who post up and try to operate from the perimeter. If the Hoosiers have neither player, that’s a problem for defending all the weapons Rutgers has.

The Scarlet Knights have several guards who are a problem off the bounce in seniors Geo Baker and Jacob Young and junior Montez Mathis. The 6-foot-4, 195-pound Baker has 39 points against the Hoosiers in two games this season, and the Hoosiers will have to find a way to contain him without Franklin as a defensive option.

“We have to stay connected on defense and stay tight and not allow them to penetrate and dish,” IU senior guard Al Durham said. “We all gotta stay connected with the packline defense that we play. We all have to be together and well have to defend together. That’s the game plan we’re heading into this with.”

If the Hoosiers have to play without Race Thompson, they’ll have to figure out someone who can handle Ron Harper Jr., the 6-6, 245-pounder who leads the Scarlet Knights with 15.3 points per game to go with 5.9 rebounds and a team-high 41 3-pointers.

And whatever they do with him, they still have to deal with the 6-11, 255-pound Myles Johnson on both ends. He blocked a combined 12 shots in the first two games with Indiana.

“He has incredible hands,” Miller said. “I mean, incredible hands. You also add in incredible reach. He can reach across people’s bodies for one-hand offensive rebounds. Blocking shots across the lane. He’s got a unique ability with great hands, shot-blocking ability, he’s physical, he’s very mobile, and he’s not being put in situations when he’s having to move around a lot. He’s protecting the rim.”

Which is an issue because it forces the Hoosiers to shoot 3-pointers. They have stayed in games against Rutgers in part because they’ve shot surprisingly well against them, hitting 18 of 34 attempts in two games. However, Indiana isn’t typically that good and they have been worse than usual since Franklin has been hurt, hitting just 11 of 58 attempts in their past three games.

And if the Hoosiers don’t solve all of those issues Thursday, their season ends. They’re aware of this, but are trying to view this game as the start of a new season.

“It’s a reset,” Durham said. “That’s how we’re trying to look at it. It’s zero-zero. We just tried to come in and work as hard as we could and get back to the basics. We’re going in with a different mindset, I would say.”

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