Archie Miller spoke like he knew it was coming, which makes sense because anyone who has followed this Indiana program this season probably should have.
Miller coaches a deeply flawed team. It struggles on both ends at the start of games. It spends significant periods of each game in scoring deserts. If it has an offensive identity, it’s difficult to discern. It is good but not great on the defensive end, with a team full of players with desire and capability to make an impact on that end, but no one for whom the phrase “lock-down defender” would necessarily apply.
The Hoosiers can still win games and compete most nights because most other college basketball teams are also flawed. They too can go through droughts and fail to capitalize on on the periods when Indiana isn’t scoring. If the Hoosiers simply refuse to fold and compete on defense — and they usually play with a considerable amount of fortitude — they can chip away at big leads and give themselves a puncher’s chance late in games. They fell behind 17-4 to Iowa last Sunday and 21-7 to Northwestern on Wednesday and still managed to come back to win both of those.
But on Saturday in Columbus, the Hoosiers faced an Ohio State team that has played as well as any team in the country over the last month outside of Gonzaga and Baylor. The Buckeyes are particularly well suited to take advantage of Indiana’s shortcomings, and that’s exactly what they did.
The No. 4 Buckeyes’ 78-59 win over Indiana marked the Hoosiers’ biggest margin of defeat since their 66-44 loss to Texas at the Maui Invitational (in Asheville, N.C.) on Dec. 1. That was the last time the Hoosiers were held under 60 points.
With the loss, the Hoosiers dropped to 11-9 overall, 6-7 in the Big Ten, and missed out on a chance for a massive boost to their NCAA Tournament resumé. But Miller made it clear in his post-game that it would have been a massive boost precisely because it would have been a massive lift, one beyond the Hoosiers’ capacity on Saturday.
“Ohio State, terrific team, knew it coming in,” Miller said. “There is a reason they’e climbed the ladder as the season has gone the way they have … There wasn’t anything we could do today to really stem them from being able to physically overwhelm us.”
The Buckeyes (17-4, 11-4) have won six straight and nine of their last 10. They started the season slow, dropping three of their first five Big Ten games including one at the hands of Northwestern. That’s particularly hard to believe considering the degree to which Ohio State took advantage of Indiana’s mistakes and anemic stretches in ways that Northwestern couldn’t.
Against the Wildcats on Wednesday, the Hoosiers shot 24.1 percent from the field in the first half and had as many turnovers (seven) as made field goals and still trailed by just three points at halftime because Northwestern shot 30 percent from the field and got just eight points on those giveaways. That allowed Indiana to hang around until eventually winning in double overtime.
Ohio State, meanwhile, turned the Indiana’s slow offensive start Saturday into a 21-6 early lead. They did allow the Hoosiers to make a comeback, chopping that advantage down to five points, Ohio State responded with a 22-4 run to bury the Hoosiers.
“Against a team like this,” Miller said, “you’re not going to be able to function down 17-4. You’re going to be fighting uphill the whole time.”
The reason is because Ohio State could beat them in every facet. The Buckeyes were more physical in the post, better at execution on offense, and better at ball-hawking on the perimeter.
The Buckeyes caused 15 turnovers, the most Indiana has had in a game that ended in regulation since its Dec. 23 loss to Northwestern, and turned those into 21 points.
“When you play against Ohio State, they’re going to be physical on the ball,” Miller said. “The floor is going to be really crowded on drives. The first step in looking at it, our guards really inability all game long to draw assist passes, to not try to score on the herd so to speak and be able to share it on drives really hurt us, and some of the turnovers had to do with their defense.”
And on offense, the Buckeyes outscored Indiana in the paint 34-32, hit more 3-pointers (7 to 5) and more free throws (17-12). The Hoosiers had trouble stopping their guards, wings and post men. Guards Duane Washington and C.J. Walker scored 12 and 10 points respectively. Small forward Justice Suieng had 16 points and 10 rebounds, and Naismith Award candidate E.J. Liddell had 19 points on 6 of 12 shooting with a pair of 3-pointers. The Buckeyes finished with 1.258 points per possession according to the StatBroadcast calculation.
“I think our defense collapsed,” sophomore center Trayce Jackson-Davis said. “It enabled them to get a lead early.”
The Buckeyes were also dominant on the glass, winning there 36-28 and scoring 20 points on second-chances to Indiana’s nine.
“Ohio State is getting a lot of credit right now for their for their offense,” Miller said. “But I don’t think it’s just 3-point shooting. I think they should get a lot more credit for how tough-minded they are, how physical they are and how forceful they are in the way that they play.”
The Hoosiers walked away focused on areas they thought they could fix, one of which being their continued slow starts, which have been a problem all season but an acute one in the last three games.
Saturday’s was particularly brutal on the offensive end. In the first three minutes, the Hoosiers made a pair of 3-pointers, but didn’t score again until the 10:06 mark and didn’t get another field goal until the 9:25 mark in the first half, going 2 of 12 from the field up until that point. They scored a total of 15 points in the first 15 minutes before finally waking up with an 11-0 run.
“It really comes down at the end of the day to making a couple layups,” Miller said. “Making a couple free throws. … We have to knock in the easy ones to be able to stay in there and help the confidence level of our team. We definitely have a major starting problem in terms of how we start. We have been down big here recently in terms of our starts. It’s been hard for our offense to start games.”
Part of the reason for that is it’s been difficult for Jackson-Davis to get going early. The preseason All-American kept the Hoosiers afloat for most of the game with 23 points and nine rebounds, making 10 of 14 attempts. No one else on the roster scored more than 10, but he missed his first two shots and went almost 10 minutes without scoring to start the game.
“I think it’s just me, it’s mostly just mentally,” Jackson-Davis said. “I’m in my head a lot. I got taken out for a second and just cleared my head, and when I got back in I felt like I was ready to go. Now, moving forward, it’s just getting that out of the way and just taking my time at the rim and finishing those shots.”
That would have made some difference if he’d pulled it off on Saturday, but against this Ohio State team it’s hard to imagine that would have been enough.
“Today was not our day,” Miller said. “Ohio State had everything to do with it.”
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