NEW YORK — Xavier Johnson was questionable going into IU’s game on Sunday, but he started without issue.
His problems — and his team’s — arose when the game began.
After going down at the end of the Wright State game, the senior guard’s status was uncertain entering the Hoosiers’ matchup with No. 4 UConn Sunday in the Empire Classic. He was listed as questionable on Indiana’s availability report, but dressed for warmups, looked healthy, and appeared set for a normal workload.
But Johnson picked up two fouls in the first 2:11 of game time, and Indiana never recovered. UConn ran away with a 77-57 win at Madison Square Garden.
IU head coach Mike Woodson sat Johnson for nearly eight minutes after he picked up the second foul. When he checked back in with 10:09 to go in the first half, he picked up his third foul just 38 seconds later, an offensive foul for pushing off. He went right back to the bench.
“You take yourself right back out of the game after I put you in,” Woodson said after the game. “I’ve got to trust that you can get through the half with the two fouls. And it was clearly a foul. That didn’t help matters. X is a big part of what we do. He’s got to become better at running our team and be smart about not picking up fouls.”
Johnson was able to play only 14 total minutes on Sunday because of his foul trouble. He sat for the rest of the first half after the third foul. The senior played his longest extended run of the game to begin the second half, but then he picked up a fourth foul in the middle of the half and went back to the bench.
At that point, IU trailed by 10 points. The Hoosiers had flirted with both climbing back into the game and falling completely out of it. It remained a 10-point game when he came back in, but he went back to the bench for good less than two minutes later after UConn pushed its lead to 16.
The foul trouble and limited minutes made it difficult for Johnson to make a big impact on the game, but Indiana needed him to figure out how to be more effective despite that situation. And he just didn’t.
Fellow captain Trey Galloway said Johnson needs to be smarter.
“It’s always tough when your point guard is in foul trouble. We need him on the floor,” Galloway said. “He’s got to be smarter, we’ve got to be smarter, because he knows how much we need him to be on the floor to lead our team. So I think just him staying in the fight, and knowing when to pick your poison with being physical, I think the refs got him a couple early ones, so it was tough. It was hard for him to get in a flow.”
Meanwhile, Indiana’s other guards simply didn’t pick up the slack.
For all the offseason talk of a more spaced out playing style coming this season, the Hoosiers are playing pretty similarly to past years, operating through the paint. And Malik Reneau’s performance Sunday — 7 for 9 for 18 points — warranted it.
But for Indiana to be the team it wants to be this season, it can’t rely on those sorts of performances from Reneau or Kel’el Ware every night.
Johnson’s foul trouble thrust Gabe Cupps and C.J. Gunn into more significant roles early in the game. Cupps has carved out a role for himself early on through his effort on both ends; his effort wasn’t an issue against UConn, but against the stronger competition, he struggled to make the sort of impact he had in IU’s other games.
C.J. Gunn did some good things defensively — which Indiana’s guards didn’t do a lot of, as Tristen Newton and Cam Spencer dominated the game Sunday for the Huskies.
Galloway was serviceable, with 10 points on a 4-for-8 clip. But with Johnson out and the reserve guards not providing the needed spark, the Hoosiers could’ve benefitted from him playing a bigger role.
The guards were also a big reason why the Hoosiers got manhandled on the glass on Sunday. Indiana’s guards grabbed three rebounds, combined. Newton alone had more than three times the rebounds all of Indiana’s backcourt did.
“Our guards are not rebounding. We’re trying to leave it up to Ware and Malik to get all the rebounds,” Woodson said. “We’ve got to do a better job of rebounding. I thought that was the difference in the game.”
Indiana’s 3-point problem resurfaced as well Sunday. UConn head coach Dan Hurley openly said it’s not IU’s biggest strength. Everyone knows about it, and opponents are adjusting accordingly. The Hoosiers had plenty of open looks from 3-point range, but still went just 3 for 13 as a team. As the game started to get away in the second half, that became a bigger problem.
The Hoosiers may not need to be a high-volume 3-point shooting team to be successful. Well, they better not need to be, because they may just never be that type of team. But that does put more pressure and value on each 3-pointer they do attempt, and they’ll have trouble winning a lot of games shooting as inefficiently from beyond the arc as they did Sunday.
Indiana, over the last two games, is shooting 20.7 percent on 3-pointers. That just won’t cut it against a majority of the teams IU will play this season.
And it all ties back to Indiana’s guards. Yes, the forwards contribute to 3-point shooting as well — IU needs more production across the board from Mackenzie Mgbako, and Ware will clearly factor into the outside shooting equation. But the common denominator for many of the issues from Sunday’s game lies in Indiana’s backcourt.
And if that continues into future games, particularly in conference play, it will only become a more glaring issue.
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