BLOOMINGTON, IN - January 14, 2023 - mbb during the game between the Wisconsin Badgers and the Indiana Hoosiers at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall in Bloomington, IN. Photo By Xavier Daniels/Indiana Athletics

Indiana rediscovers its defensive identity against Wisconsin

Indiana’s three-game losing streak displayed shockingly bad basketball.

The Hoosiers, once a team that hung its hat on defense, could not find much that worked on that end after the first quarter of the Iowa game. It turned Saturday’s game against Wisconsin at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall into a must-win.

And when they needed it most, those Hoosiers rediscovered their identity. With Wisconsin leading scorer Tyler Wahl out with an ankle injury, IU’s defense stifled the Badgers and led to a 63-45 win.

“I thought our guys answered the bell tonight,” IU head coach Mike Woodson said. “Our backs were somewhat against the wall, and losing three in a row is not fun for anybody. But our guys still had good spirits coming in to practice, and it was a nice carry over today. We played Indiana defense the way I think we should be playing.”

Don’t overlook how far Indiana’s defense had fallen. The Hoosiers allowed 80 or more points in all three losses. It was evident, just through the eye test, that IU wasn’t playing hard enough, especially on defense. And the stats backed it up: IU allowed 1.264 points per possession to Iowa, 1.200 against Northwestern, and 1.371 at Penn State.

Even the best offenses in the nation wouldn’t be able to consistently outpace numbers like that.

But the Hoosiers flipped the switch defensively Saturday, holding Wisconsin to 0.750 points per possession. The lapses that plagued them in that losing streak went away. Indiana played with high effort and energy on defense all game.

IU forced the Badgers into a lot of difficult shots. And they missed a lot of them. Wisconsin shot 32 percent from the field, and 21 percent from 3-point range.

For Trayce Jackson-Davis, the difference was positioning.

“When you’re not in your right spots and you’re running in and then back out, then it hurts you because you can’t get out quick enough,” the senior said. “When we’re in our right spots and we do the defense right, it’s a lot different, and that’s what you saw today.”

Wahl certainly could’ve made the game look different. The Badgers have now lost three in a row, themselves, with the senior on the sideline. And his absence may have turned this game into a nice bounce-back spot for Indiana’s defense.

It allowed Jackson-Davis to fully control the inside.

Jalen Hood-Schifino, among others, did well against Chucky Hepburn, Wisconsin’s second-leading scorer. Jordan Geronimo was effective in whatever defensive role he had to take on.

The junior, specifically, looked lost on defense against Iowa and Northwestern. But on Saturday, he closed out on shooters, defended the post with strength, clogged up lanes, and pestered his assignments.

“(Geronimo) looked comfortable,” Woodson said. “I thought he was more relaxed tonight and he did a lot of positive things on both ends of the floor. I just hope he can just grow from this game and continue to play that well.”

Wahl’s absence doesn’t diminish just how good the defense was. The first half was an offensive slog for both teams, but that played into Indiana’s hands.

The Hoosiers gave themselves time to figure things out offensively because their defense was so stifling. And once Indiana pulled away early in the second half, its lead felt difficult to topple because of the strong defense.

“Obviously they are a little short-handed but we are shorthanded, too. It was a dogfight,” Jackson-Davis said. “We knew it was going to happen on the defensive end, and that’s what we preached all week in getting ready and prepared for them.”

This performance was desperately needed. If Indiana lost this game, it would’ve been damaging to any long-term hopes for the rest of the Big Ten campaign and beyond.

IU avoided that, and rejuvenated its outlook, by getting back to what this team once did best.

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