Coach Tom Crean has four reasons to be concerned about his team's chances this season.
It’s not easy being hunted. The Hoosiers can attest to that. As one of the premier teams in the NCAA, Indiana should expect every team’s best shot—and should therefore be prepared.
After spending the first six weeks of the college basketball season atop the national rankings, Butler knocked off No. 1 Indiana in overtime in mid-December.
Then, Wisconsin tarnished No. 2 Indiana's previously perfect home record with a 64-59 win in Assembly Hall at the beginning of conference play. On Thursday night, Illinois stunned the Hoosiers in Champaign’s version of Assembly Hall, and for the fifth consecutive week, the top team in the nation fell.
While all three of Indiana’s losses were distinctly unique, there are a few noticeable trends that should have fans in Bloomington wary of their team’s Final Four potential.
Let’s examine where the Hoosiers are most vulnerable.
It doesn’t matter that Zeller isn’t a ball hog or typically doesn’t force shots in lieu of better ones for his teammates. The Hoosiers need to recognize that he can be their most dominating force, if they’d give him the opportunity. In overtime against Butler, the Hoosiers finally did.
After attempting just two shots in the second half against the Bulldogs, Zeller went 2-of-3 from the field and finished with six points in overtime, via ESPN.
He finished the game with four made baskets and five rebounds, although he was 10-of-14 from the free-throw line. Had he not been so selfless in the second half, the game likely never would’ve gone to OT.
The same thing happened against Illinois, where he was just 4-of-6 from the field.
His scoring (14 points) was efficient and in rhythm, but Indiana is at its best when he’s forcing the issue. After all, he does shoot 75 percent from the free-throw line.
For Zeller, whether he’s going to score or not is predicated on his positioning. If he doesn’t do the work to fight for his territory in the paint before the ball arrives, he’s content to pass it out to his perimeter shooters, which isn’t in Indiana’s best interest.
Against Wisconsin, Zeller scored 18 of his 23 points in the first half but attempted one shot (a tip-in) in the final 10 minutes of the game. Zeller’s percent of possessions in the losses to Butler and Illinois, as calculated by KenPom.com, were two of his four lowest rates in Indiana’s last 14 games.
Frankly, he disappeared for stretches, and in order to avoid losses, Indiana needs to put an emphasis on finding him.
Size matters, and Indiana has it.
Cody Zeller, Christian Watford and Will Sheehey are all big and versatile. The trio is a terror to score on inside the paint, which is why in all three of their losses, opposing teams have stretched the floor with capable outside shooting from their forwards and centers.
Take the loss to Wisconsin, for example. Forwards Mike Bruesewitz, Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker shot a combined 6-of-12 from beyond the arc.
Badger center Jared Berggren (16 three-pointers this year) is capable of knocking them down from outside as well, which has the added benefit of forcing Zeller and company to the perimeter.
Illinois and Butler also exploited this weakness.
Fighting Illini forward Tyler Griffey hit two big three-pointers in the second half of Illinois’ comeback win, and Butler stretched the floor with three-pointers from center Andrew Smith and forward Erik Fromm.
Three-point shooting against Indiana is vital in general since most teams can’t compete in the paint.
It’s why Butler, Wisconsin and Illinois shot a combined 27-of-70 from beyond the arc, good for a 38.5-percent rate.
But when opponents’ big men are knocking down threes, or even attempting them for that matter, it makes Indiana’s defense thinner and less likely to get into the passing lanes or clog the lane.
Indiana is as balanced as any team in the country. Their guards are elite, and Zeller is the rock in the frontcourt. Seemingly, there are no weaknesses, unless Christian Watford, the oft-criticized forward, fails to produce.
In Indiana’s three losses, he has one less turnover (7) than he has made field goals. He’s shot 8-of-24 from the field and has been a gigantic liability on defense.
Against Butler’s above-average frontcourt, he managed just three rebounds in 23 minutes. Against Wisconsin’s big men, he hauled in five rebounds in 29 minutes.
The final six minutes of Thursday’s loss to Illinois weren’t kind to the senior.
Watford committed two off-ball fouls nowhere near the basket, committed two turnovers, missed two shots and blew his defensive assignments against D.J. Richardson (who knocked down a three-pointer) and Tyler Griffey on the game-winning play.
Watford matched up on Griffey, got trapped on a screen, and instead of communicating with guard Yogi Ferrell about a switch, both Hoosiers went with Richardson, leaving Griffey open for the easy layup.
Watford is an immense talent, capable of knocking down big three-pointers (ask Kentucky) and finishing at the free-throw line (82 percent this year), but it’s consistency that coach Tom Crean needs to see.
The Hoosiers do have excellent sixth-man Will Sheehey, but if they go without Watford at the end of games, that usually means Jordan Hulls’ suspect defense could be exposed.
Technically, Indiana has lost one game at home (Wisconsin), one on the road (Illinois) and one on a neutral site (Butler) at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Even though there are only eight games left in the regular season, Indiana has played just five times on the road thus far, compiling a record of 4-1. Last season, they trudged through a 3-6 conference road record.
The problem is that they’ve feasted (for the most part) on the bottom of the barrel in the Big Ten. The Hoosiers beat Penn State, Northwestern and Purdue all on the road by an average of 22.6 points per game. Iowa, whose home-court advantage is underrated, nearly pulled off the upset at home, losing narrowly 69-65.
The rest of Indiana’s road games are against ranked opponents.
The Hoosiers play at No. 10 Ohio State on Saturday, at No. 12 Michigan State on Feb. 19, at No. 18 Minnesota a week later and then close out the regular season in Ann Arbor against No. 3 Michigan.
Unfortunately for the Hoosiers, the atmosphere in Champaign on Thursday night wasn’t half as raucous as what they’ll face in Columbus or East Lansing. Against Illinois, the lower bowl wasn’t even full until late in the second half when word spread that the Fighting Illini were within striking distance.
If Indiana is to challenge for the Big Ten title, it’s going to have to learn to channel out the hostile environments or risk ceding the title to a more battle-tested team.