As Indiana men’s basketball’s night went from bad to worse on Wednesday, Xavier Johnson’s reaction said it all.
Nebraska outplayed IU for much of the first half at Pinnacle Bank Arena, and it turned into domination in the second half. With around seven minutes remaining, Cornhuskers guard Brice Williams banked in a 3-pointer with Johnson guarding him. And when the ball found the bottom of the net, Johnson just threw his arms up and then right back down to his side, exasperated.
It was that kind of night for the Hoosiers. Fortune didn’t find them, and they were wholly incapable of making their own luck in this contest. Nebraska ran away with an 86-70 win, its first win over Indiana in five years.
“We’ve been competitive off and on. I’ve just got to get us competitive for 40 minutes,” IU head coach Mike Woodson said after the game. “When we’ve got our fan base, we seem to play a little bit better. But it’s different on the road. You’ve got to do all the things right on the road to win basketball games. And we didn’t do that tonight.”
Nebraska (12-2, 2-1 Big Ten) deserves credit. The Cornhuskers appear to have their best team in the Fred Hoiberg era, and they contend for an NCAA Tournament bid. And they showed up on Wednesday.
But Indiana (10-4, 2-1) just had a litany of things go wrong.
For starters, IU’s veteran backcourt was completely outplayed. Johnson may have had rust to shake off after missing seven straight games with a foot injury, but he largely struggled on both ends of the court. Trey Galloway scored 10 points, but six came on 3-pointers later in the second half when the game was already out of reach.
Meanwhile, the Hoosiers couldn’t stop Keisei Tominaga (28 points), and Williams (15 points) and Jamarques Lawrence (12 points) caused issues as well. IU just let Nebraska’s guards dictate the game, particularly in the second half.
That was indicative of Indiana’s entire defensive effort on Wednesday. Nebraska, entering this game, ranked 68th in the country at 1.087 points per possession; NU scored 1.246 PPP against IU, including 1.364 in the second half. The Hoosiers allowed far too many easy looks to the Huskers, didn’t close out effectively enough on outside shooters, and compounded mistakes on top of each other, leading to many broken defensive possessions.
“This team is not as good as we were defensively the last two years,” Woodson said. “A lot of it is because we do have new faces, but we’ve got to overcome that. I’ve got to get them over the hump. When it comes to defending and rebounding and not turning the ball over, that’s my job to do that. We failed in that area tonight.”
But perhaps the biggest difference in the game was turnovers.
Indiana averaged 12.3 turnovers per game entering Wednesday, which ranked 167th in the country and ninth in the Big Ten. But it’s been a big problem over the last two games. The Hoosiers turned the ball over 17 times last week against Kennesaw State, and they committed 19 against Nebraska. And those 19 turnovers led to 27 points; meanwhile, IU forced just eight turnovers going the other way, and scored just six points off them.
Nebraska forced 11.5 opponent turnovers per game entering Wednesday. The Huskers aren’t a team that routinely turns opponents over at a high rate. But Indiana made it easy on them, with a plethora of unforced errors.
“That’s just something we’re going to have to work on in practice. We need to get better at just holding the ball and protecting the ball,” center Kel’el Ware said. “It wasn’t nothing on Nebraska’s part. It was more of us throwing bad passes to each other. We’ve just got to take care of the ball more and make smarter passes.”
Ware tied for a team-high four turnovers, along with Johnson and Malik Reneau. Galloway committed three. Anthony Walker finished with two. And Kaleb Banks and Mackenzie Mgbako had one each.
And that’s only the plays officially scored as turnovers. IU had plenty of other possessions that ended with a bad decision or a poor shot selection that weren’t marked as turnovers in the stat sheet, but were essentially also turnovers.
IU didn’t shoot especially poorly — 47 percent from the field (Nebraska shot 46 percent), 9 for 18 from 3-point range. The Hoosiers out-rebounded the Huskers. But when you give away as many possessions as IU did on Wednesday, it outweighs those positives.
Woodson said turnovers haven’t been an issue in practice.
“We preach a lot about not turning the ball over, because that’s (the difference between) winning and losing basketball games,” Woodson said. “Over the last two years, we’ve been pretty good in that area. The last two games, we’ve exploded the other way in terms of turning the ball over. Somehow, we’ve got to fix that. Because you can’t win, can’t beat anybody — especially on the road, you’re not going to beat anybody turning it over 19 times.”
Without a marquee non-conference win on its résumé, Indiana came into the restart of Big Ten play with a narrow margin for error. The highest-rated non-conference opponent, per KenPom, that the Hoosiers beat was No. 133 Morehead State — and they needed a big second-half comeback to escape an upset that night. They’re teetering towards falling out of the top 100, themselves.
Losing to Nebraska, even in blowout fashion, isn’t a result that extinguishes any NCAA Tournament hopes for Indiana. Not in early January, by any means.
But the Hoosiers can’t afford to exhibit many more performances like this one and still get to where they want to go in March. Because you won’t win many games by playing like that.
And particularly in conference play, Indiana won’t be able to get away with the types of mistakes it got away with in several non-conference games.
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