What happened to the defense?
That is the question on everyone’s mind as Indiana escaped in Lincoln, Neb. on Sunday night, re-claiming what was once an 18-point lead late and knocking off the Cornhuskers 84-76.
From the jump this did not appear to be the same Archie Miller team we have become accustomed to seeing on the defensive end. The team that showed up in Lincoln did not have the look of KenPom’s 12th-ranked defensive squad. Instead, the Hoosiers seemed to be content to engage in an AAU style track meet with the Big Ten’s worst team.
There are plenty of excuses to go around.
For starters, Armaan Franklin, a top perimeter defender, continues to be out with an ankle injury.
Additionally, the team had just endured a true rock fight on Thursday night in Wisconsin, in which multiple players played 45-plus minutes due to double overtime.
At the end of the day, those excuses, while not without merit, are just that, excuses.
It wasn’t that Nebraska scored 77 points, 12 higher than Indiana’s average points allowed, and 1.1 points per possession. It was how the Huskers did it, through a combination of straight-line, one-on-one drives and transition baskets, consistently beating Indiana down the floor.
“We put ourselves in a tough spot (not) being organized getting back (on defense), our effort getting back, and then our effort on the ball as they really sort of just spread the floor and just started to drive,” Miller said after the game.
Indiana’s guards struggled to keep Nebraska’s perimeter players from getting to the basket. Trey McGowens, in particular, attacked downhill relentlessly, and time and time again, the Hoosiers provided little to no resistance as Nebraska turned a 58-44 deficit into a 63-62 lead in under six minutes of game time.
Perhaps an undisclosed leg injury that Rob Phinisee played through and described as sore after the game contributed to the struggles staying in front of the ball.
There have been times this season where Indiana’s defense has been the one constant, in some cases the only reason why the Hoosiers were staying in and winning games. Tonight, that script flipped.
Part of the story was IU’s decision to attack the offensive glass.
Indiana grabbed 12 rebounds off their own misses, and converted those into 16 points. But hunting for second chances led to some of Nebraska’s opportunities going the other way as the Hoosiers gave chase.
This was perhaps the first instance all season in which Archie Miller’s team was beaten down the floor, and it happened over and over again. In the second half the game became Groundhog Day for Indiana. A guard would miss a three, the ball would go to a Nebraska player, and the ‘Huskers would fly down the floor, often getting a layup or a trail three.
“Our effort getting back became problematic,” Miller said.
Indiana has been on the road for five days now, going straight from Wisconsin to Nebraska. Perhaps the wear and tear from traveling played a role in the lethargic defensive effort the Hoosiers gave on Sunday.
But Miller thought that decision actually helped his team recover from a physical game in Madison just a few days earlier.
“We did go straight from Wisconsin to Nebraska,” Miller said. “The more they can stay in one place, it just seems to me it gives them more comfortable recovery approach. I would do it again.”
Whatever the reason for the defensive struggles, the team needs to figure it out fast, what with a murderer’s row of offenses coming up. In the next month alone, Indiana will play four games against teams currently ranked in the top seven of KenPom’s offensive rankings.
This is a group that has consistently been high-level defensively, even when matched up with top-shelf offensive teams. Perhaps Sunday’s second-half defensive performance was an outlier. Under coach Fred Hoiberg Nebraska certainly puts tempo at a premium, providing a unique challenge that is difficult to prepare for.
Regardless, it was once again a referendum on the 2020-21 team. When the Hoosiers play great defense, the offense stagnates. When IU shoots the lights out as it did in the first half against Nebraska, things seem to take a slide on the other end.
One of these days the lockdown defense will be matched on the other side of the ball, and an early 18-point lead will become a blowout win.
There just has to be a game where this team puts it all together.
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