After watching Illinois run his team off their home court in the second half, Mike Woodson was asked about composure.
“I’m not even going to comment on the composure,” he said.
Fast forward ten days and Woodson didn’t have to be asked specifically about composure, he offered that it was an issue after his team melted down against Wisconsin in the closing minutes.
“I thought we froze,” he said in reference to a lack of offensive execution by his team on their late game possessions that saw IU make just 1-of-10 shots to close the contest.
Negative scoring runs are part of the game of basketball, every team good and bad experiences them.
But when IU is getting outplayed for sustained stretches of games, especially over the last two weeks, is what has become particularly concerning.
The red flags went up early in the season. In the opener against Eastern Michigan, Indiana led at one point 48-29 before EMU pulled to with 59-58 with 2:47 left. Indiana led 37-23 late first half against St. John’s but allowed the Red Storm to pull back to within one midway through the second half.
Indiana started horribly at Syracuse but rallied to take a 67-65 second half lead — but were then back down by 11 in just over four minutes. They also gave away three and four point leads in each overtime.
It was the first Big Ten road test that really set off the alarms. Indiana led 42-20 late in the first half at Wisconsin but the Badgers chipped away and ultimately won by five points. Woodson would say after the game Indiana played well until the last minute or two, but in reality Wisconsin outscored IU 44-17 from that 22-point first half Hoosiers lead to the end of the game.
Then at Iowa, Indiana led by 11 with 2:25 left in the first half but were outscored 51-31 the rest of the game.
With much of the trouble taking place on the road, Woodson assured that holding serve at home was what mattered most. That seemed reasonable, especially after a win over Purdue. Take care of business in Bloomington, and IU would be a lock for the NCAA Tournament.
And then Michigan closed out the last 14 minutes in Bloomington with a 28-19 run. Indiana then let a 32-point early second half lead against Penn State get cut down to 14 with 3:15 left in the game. They still got the win over the Nittany Lions, but the second half effort felt familiar.
And then the trouble really started as IU has encountered its first losing streak of the season — one that has now swelled to four games.
Indiana led Illinois by four with 13:11 left but were outscored 32-11 the rest of the way. The Hoosiers were down just three at Michigan State with 9:30 left but were outscored 22-8 over the next eight minutes. And then in the Wisconsin rematch Indiana led by five with 3:52 left but were outscored 13-4 to close the game including an 8-0 finishing run by the Badgers.
Indiana won at home, and avoided losing streaks, by finding ways to close out games earlier in the season against St. John’s, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Purdue, among others. While the offensive shortcomings of this team have been well documented throughout the season, in those games in particular Indiana leaned heavily on its second half defense, something it can’t rely on to the same degree since Rob Phinisee left that Penn State game with an injury and hasn’t been seen since.
And as the season grinds on and his team’s composure is tested night in and night out, Woodson is seeing cracks — both mental and physical.
“I mean, the good teams do it,” Woodson said on Tuesday, referring to closing out games.
“We’re not that good yet. We’re still a work in this progress trying to figure it out down the stretch. We’ve played some good basketball this season. We just haven’t been consistent in bringing them home. Been in every ball game fighting battling. Can’t take that away from our guys because they do fight.”
Woodson has contributed to the second half struggles. His bench has two technical fouls in the last three games, and it is reasonable to at least postulate the IU staff is losing the battle of in-game adjustments.
And Woodson’s challenge is compounded by the program’s recent history.
The Hoosiers are 0-4 so far in February, and that follows a trend over the last four seasons that many on the team have been a part of. From 2019 to 2022, IU is now 9-17 in February, a month typically thought of in college basketball as a time when good teams begin to emerge. See: Rutgers, 2022.
But instead of rising as the season progresses, Woodson thinks some on his team are seeing ghosts.
“I got to somehow help them, man, because they are kind of looking over their shoulders again, you know, at past years and how things have happened to them coming down the stretch, man, and I got to help them get over that somehow,” Woodson said.
Simply finding enough answers to will his team to the NCAA Tournament is the goal now.
But it won’t be easy.
Woodson needs a second half rally.
And those have been hard to come by lately.
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