MADISON, Wis. — This Indiana men’s basketball season has been defined by ebbs and flows.
And no game has provided a more glaring example of that than Friday’s 91-79 loss to No. 11 Wisconsin.
The Big Ten-leading Badgers (14-4, 6-1) capitalized on a plethora of Indiana miscues — another recurring theme. Indiana (12-7, 4-4) suffered its third defeat in the last four games, and its fourth loss in the last six contests. And IU extended its Kohl Center losing streak to 20 games.
Indiana displayed a full range of emotions throughout the night, from the court, to the sideline, to the postgame press conference. And those expressions spoke volumes.
There was plenty of embarrassment. Near the end of the first half, Xavier Johnson committed a needless foul with seven seconds left, and Indiana’s bench wasn’t thrilled with the sixth-year. Director of player development Calbert Cheaney showed visible frustration, and assistant coach Brian Walsh covered his face. It gave Wisconsin two free points at the foul line, right after Gabe Cupps knocked down a 3-pointer to cut IU’s deficit to 11 points.
It was the latest in a long line of unnecessary mistakes Indiana’s made all year. The Hoosiers, on so many occasions, just haven’t been able to stay out of their own way.
But Friday’s most regrettable moment came in the second half, when CJ Gunn was handed a flagrant 2 foul for elbowing Max Klesmit. It prompted Don Fischer to openly express his embarrassment over the airwaves, a drastic step for IU’s longtime play-by-play voice.
Head coach Mike Woodson thought the ejection was harsh.
“In the heat of the battle, anything is liable to happen. I’m not happy about it,” Woodson said after the game. “After looking at it, the kid (Klesmit) put his head on his (Gunn’s) chest. He threw a semi-elbow, I don’t think it was something hard that warranted being kicked out of the game. I can’t control that, he was kicked out.”
But that aspect of the decision doesn’t overshadow IU’s repeated lack of discipline. The Hoosiers have picked up four flagrant fouls in the last four games — though one was a hook-and-hold, an obvious difference from the unsportsmanlike acts by Gunn and Johnson.
And that doesn’t account for the frustration fouls and other poor decisions the Hoosiers have made as things spiral away from them in these recent losses. Indiana’s looked increasingly fragmented for prolonged stretches, and typically displays poor body language during those runs.
“We’ve got to figure out a way to be one on the court,” sophomore forward Malik Reneau said. “I feel like we’re kind of disconnected in some ways, but, I mean, we’re gonna fix that, get it right.”
Given Indiana’s shortcomings, it’s easy to fault leadership, whether on the court or the sideline.
But listen to Reneau face the media after the game — watch him show the accountability many fans are demanding — and you instantly sense how much he cares. You can hear it in his voice. You can see it in his eyes.
And on nights like these, he speaks on behalf of his teammates. The Hoosiers may look like they’re just going through the motions when opponents go on big runs to break games open. But they’re trying. Yes, they make frequent mistakes, but they do want to win.
“We really have to go harder in practice and figure out a way to understand what Woody is talking about and apply it on the court. I feel like we’re not doing it, and that’s when they have the spurts where they go on their runs and it’s hard to fight back,” Reneau said. “We fought back as hard as we can, but it’s tough when you build that deficit and try to build it back. We did it in the Purdue game, we did it in most of our losses.”
For all of Indiana’s problems since Big Ten play restarted — and, to an extent, the entire season — this team doesn’t quit. The Hoosiers have had four frustrating Big Ten losses, but aren’t flat-out giving up. They’ve made second-half runs in all four games. Some of those stretches have come too late, with the outcome already decided — but they aren’t just giving up when the deficit becomes too much.
That, in contrast, does reflect well on Indiana’s leadership and culture. Of course, it would mean more without the double-digit holes, and if the team won some of those games. IU has obvious X-and-O problems beyond the leadership concerns that explain its flaws. But the players keep pushing, even if they aren’t on a winning track.
That happened again on Friday. Wisconsin went on an 18-2 run in the second half, with Gunn’s ejection coming near the end of that spurt. Indiana’s defense evaporated, with constant breakdowns leading to repeated easy looks for the Badgers. And Woodson, amidst that run, sported a look of pure exasperation on the bench. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing from his squad, as Wisconsin took a 23-point lead, its largest of the game.
But after a timeout, Indiana came right back with an 11-2 run.
Things had already gone from bad to worse before the flagrant foul. That moment could’ve helped Wisconsin put the final nails in the coffin. But Indiana didn’t give up, and made the Badgers earn it. The same coaches and players who showed frustration for so much of the night displayed genuinely renewed hope, multiple times, in the second half.
But, of course, the Hoosiers won’t act happy about that. Nor should they, after getting outplayed by Wisconsin in nearly every facet.
It just speaks to the dichotomy of this Indiana team, with so many ebbs and flows throughout the season, both from game to game and within individual games. Big picture concerns like leadership and culture are rarely cut and dry, and Indiana’s situation has layers to it.
IU’s highs this year have not yet been particularly high, but there are enough sporadic positive moments to get fans excited. Its lowest lows have been completely embarrassing. And this season is quickly becoming defined by the constant see-saw between the two.
But one thing that is straightforward: Indiana has not been good enough.
“We’ve got to work. We’ve got to keep working to get better. That’s all you can do,” Woodson said. “I’m a coach. And it’s my job to figure it out as a coach to get our team playing better. And that’s what I’m going to do.”
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