Lightscape Brooklyn Wednesday December 28, 2022. Photo by Garrett Ewald

Indiana is running out of time and margin for error

As Indiana basketball’s game at Penn State slipped further and further out of reach, its season began doing the same.

No, it’s too early to say the season is totally lost when it’s only January 11. But after this 85-66 whooping in State College, the Hoosiers are running out margin for error and time to find answers.

And they know it.

“Our guys are a little down right now, and they should be. They got smacked in the face tonight,” IU head coach Mike Woodson said. “My thing is, we’re not competing, at all. And that’s on me. I’ve got to get us competing harder and stronger, and we’re not doing that.”

Indiana is down to 10-6 overall and 1-4 in Big Ten play. After starting 7-0, IU has lost six of its last nine games. And this loss may be the most embarrassing of them all. The blown lead at Iowa was bad, but that game did, at least, feature some of IU’s best basketball of the season early on, and the Hoosiers had a chance at the end.

Once Penn State (12-5, 3-3) pulled away and started growing its lead on Wednesday, IU never had a chance.

Indiana started the game with good effort on both ends, and kept pace with PSU through the first 10 minutes. But then the Nittany Lions caught fire. They shot 6 for 10 from 3-point range in the last 10 minutes of the first half, after going 3 for 7 in the opening quarter of the game.

IU’s defense cratered when Penn State went on a run. The Hoosiers gave up open shots left and right, whether because of over-helping, missed assignments, or just straight-up getting lost. The Nittany Lions are one of the highest-volume 3-point shooting teams in the Big Ten and the country, so IU knew they would pull the trigger.

Indiana at Penn State, Wednesday January 11, 2023. Photo by Garrett Ewald

And IU still couldn’t stop them from getting remarkably easy looks.

“We knew they were going to shoot it,” said junior Trey Galloway. “We’ve got to get up and contain the 3-point shot. Can’t dare them to shoot it, because they’re going to make it. That’s what they did tonight.”

Penn State’s 3-point onslaught was bad. But it’s how Indiana responded to it that turned this night from merely bad to embarrassing.

Indiana’s effort faltered.

Heads dropped in frustration with each additional 3-pointer that poured in. Mistakes on one end carried over to the other. It went from Indiana not being able to stop Penn State from beyond the arc to Indiana not being able to stop Penn State, period. The Nittany Lions shot 64 percent from the field in the second half.

Indiana looked like a team incapable of making a counterpunch.

“We talked about it coming into the game, we’ve got to be mentally sharp as well as play hard,” Woodson said. “I just think when they get smacked around a little bit, we kind of shrink and we go the other way. And we can’t do that.”

And that’s the crux of Indiana’s issues right now.

Yes, injuries keeping Race Thompson and Xavier Johnson on the sideline and limiting Trayce Jackson-Davis in practice are impacting this team. But this team’s biggest problem right now has nothing to do with physical health.

It’s that this team looks like a mentally weak group of players. This is a team that’s finding ways to lose games, rather than finding ways to win.

Johnson and Thompson leave a leadership void, but Indiana is laden with upperclassmen. That shouldn’t be an issue. But it seems to be that way, because with strong player leadership, effort wouldn’t be a consistent problem.

“We can definitely play harder. I think that’s our identity, is playing hard, and I think we’re not doing that right now. It’s all of us. We can all do a little more,” Galloway said. “Each game’s going to be challenging in the Big Ten. We can’t just go into these games not ready for a war, because they’re all wars.”

The only saving grace for Indiana after a night like this is that there’s still a lot of games left on the schedule. IU is a quarter of the way through the Big Ten slate. There’s still time to turn things around.

But IU is running out of time. This group, as is, seems to lack the mental fortitude to win a Big Ten road game. Indiana is often a different team at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, though.

This isn’t like Indiana football, where the Hoosiers are so clearly less talented than the top teams in the conference that those games can essentially be chalked up as losses before teams even step on the field. This basketball team, hard as it may be to see at times, has the talent to hang with quality opponents.

But with every game IU lets get away, there’s less margin for error. Indiana already would have to win at least one road game to finish .500 in the Big Ten, and there are a lot of difficult opponents left on the schedule.

Sometimes, though, just getting one big win can change everything. IU’s game against Wisconsin on Saturday will be telling. A Saturday afternoon game in Bloomington, with a student section, against a ranked team, at a critical moment for the Hoosiers.

If they can win that game, they may be able to salvage this season.

If Wisconsin does to Indiana what Penn State, Northwestern, or Iowa did, it will be a bleak sign.

And if Indiana does to itself the same things that happened in those games, it could be a lost cause.

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