BLOOMINGTON — Throughout this season, Indiana head men’s basketball coach Mike Woodson has longed for full 40-minute performances from his team.
No team does that in every game — everyone has off nights over the course of a four-to-five-month season. Good teams just find ways to win on those down nights.
The Hoosiers have put together pretty complete performances — even if they weren’t “40-minute ballgames” — a few times recently. But they’ve been interspersed with the sorts of dismal displays they can’t afford, and anyone following the team has had no choice but to ride the waves.
IU entered the Minnesota game coming off one of its ugliest games so far this season, the nine-point loss at Rutgers on Tuesday. And Friday, the Hoosiers turned in one of their more comprehensive performances this year, in a 74-62 win over the Golden Gophers at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall.
“You see the intensity in the game, from this game and the Rutgers game,” sophomore center Kel’el Ware said after the game. “I feel like if we bring out the intensity at the we had at the start of this game and even throughout the game to every game, I feel like we’ll be good.”
This game continued the emerging trend for Indiana (12-5, 4-2 Big Ten) in conference play with solid showings at home and struggles on the road. The Hoosiers won at Michigan in December, but since Big Ten play restarted in January, they’ve now alternated between disappointing road outings and promising home games for four straight contests.
Indiana is far from the only Big Ten team to have trouble winning away games. Last season, Purdue and Northwestern were the only two teams with winning records on the road; IU finished 5-7. This Big Ten season is still young, so the sample size for true road games is small — but the Wildcats, through Friday, are the only team in the conference with a winning away record.
But the difference between Indiana’s home and away games of late hasn’t only been the final scores. It’s the overall performances.
While there would’ve been issues to point out if the Hoosiers let the Michigan game get away, it wouldn’t have been an outright bad showing if they lost. IU shot well that night, hit free throws at a more acceptable rate, took care of the ball, and played enough defense to be in the game.
In other words: the opposite of what happened at Nebraska and Rutgers. In Lincoln, Indiana committed 19 turnovers and played extremely poor defense; in Piscataway, IU finished at 18 turnovers, shot 26.7 percent at the foul line, and allowed 19 offensive rebounds.
“It’s tough on everybody in the Big Ten on the road. It’s not just our team. Everybody is having a tough time winning on the road. We’ve got to figure it out,” Woodson said. “I really thought that (playing on the road) wouldn’t be a big problem for us after winning the Michigan game right off the bat, but it has been, and we’ve got to fix it as we move forward.”
The road struggles shouldn’t overshadow the encouraging developments IU showed Friday. The Hoosiers rode a balanced scoring attack, with four players in double-figures, and they shot 42.9 percent from 3-point range — their fourth-best percentage of the season.
Freshman Mackenzie Mgbako enjoyed his best game as a Hoosier, with a career-high 19 points and clear defensive progress. He credited Woodson for helping him improve.
“I feel like I started off a little bit slow because the nail-slot-rim (defense) we’re running is a little bit different than what I learned in high school. So just being able to just grow under coach Woodson is really good,” Mgbako said. “I feel like defense is the No. 1 thing he’s been trying to harp on because I feel like defense creates offense.”
Ware recorded his seventh double-double of the season, and his third in the last four games. Minnesota (12-4, 3-2) was rarely able to stop him. And on the other end, Ware was a big reason why IU held Gophers leading scorer Dawson Garcia to just one made field goal before the final three minutes.
Indiana, as a whole, played strong defense. The Golden Gophers ranked 14th in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio entering Friday, and IU held them to nine assists with 14 turnovers. The Hoosiers effectively cut off passing and driving lanes and caused a lot of broken possessions.
“I thought the scouting report was perfectly fit going into the game, and they followed it right from the start,” Woodson said. “We really defended the ball. We didn’t let their guards really get away from us in terms of getting downhill. We really focused in on not giving straight-line-drives where we had to help as much. I thought our bigs did a pretty good job of battling inside with their bigs. It was a total team effort tonight.”
IU wasn’t perfect. Its free-throw issues continued, shooting just 59 percent at the foul line. Gabe Cupps replaced Xavier Johnson in the starting lineup following the sixth-year’s ejection against Rutgers, and Johnson struggled in 17 minutes off the bench. Indiana will need him to play better going forward.
But these sorts of efforts, across the roster, are what IU needs to turn things around on the road.
It’s tougher in a hostile atmosphere, without the home-court advantage it has at Assembly Hall. But for Hoosiers to get where they want to go this season, they’ll have to develop more consistency and find ways to win away from Bloomington.
“We’ve got to somehow convert how we play here at home on the road,” Woodson said. “That’s going to be the difference moving forward.”
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