At the end of November, IU men’s basketball fans felt strong about the national title hopes of their team.
IU had knocked off Kansas and North Carolina within the first three weeks of the season, and although IU had had a hiccup on the road against Fort Wayne, Hoosier fans were willing to look the other way after the victory against the Tar Heels.
Fast forward a month, and the Hoosiers are 0-2 in the Big Ten and in the midst of their longest losing streak since the end of the 2013-14 season, when they failed to make the NCAA tournament.
With Illinois coming to town at 5 p.m. Saturday, IU has a chance to end its three-game skid and grab its first conference win of the year. But what’s been the main reason for the Hoosiers’ struggles of late?
“Yeah, I think the defense. Right? That’s just what it is,” IU Coach Tom Crean said. “I think it’s not as complicated as — the turnovers have been an issue here and there. There’s no question, in all games. I shouldn’t say they’re an issue here and there, but the defense is what’s got to pick up — the defense.”
The defense has been the main issue for IU in three consecutive losses to Nebraska, Louisville and Wisconsin. The Hoosiers have allowed nearly 80 points per game, but the long-range shooting and turnovers have been part of the problem as well.
IU turned the ball over 13 times against Wisconsin, and the Badgers turned those turnovers into 23 points. Additionally, IU has shot just 32 percent from distance in the last three losses combined. Before the losing streak IU’s average was nearly 40 percent from beyond the arc.
The game against the Illini on Saturday could become a shootout, and if the Hoosiers can tighten up the defense and limit turnovers they’ll be in good shape.
“We grew together as a group. We don’t let anybody stray off,” sophomore forward Juwan Morgan said. “It’s times like these where you really find out, and we’re all for each other on and off the court, and we just have to keep building.”
Illinois enters the matchup second to last in scoring defense in the Big Ten. The Illini allow 71 points per game. The Hoosiers, on the other hand, are giving up nearly 69 points per contest and are 11th out of 14 Big Ten teams in that category.
Both teams can put up their fair share of points on the offensive end. Even after dropping three consecutive games, the Hoosiers still lead the Big Ten in scoring with more than 85 points per game, and the Illini are fourth in the conference at 78 points per game. Senior forward Malcolm Hill and his nearly 19 points per game do most of the damage.
Hill is shooting 41 percent from distance, and fellow senior guard Tracy Abrams can also stroke it for the Illini. Abrams shoots nearly 50 percent from beyond the arc. Crean said after the Wisconsin game the 3-point defense was over-helping too much and challenging shots too late, but IU Assistant Athletic Director Jayd Grossman made a point to the nine-year head coach that gives Crean optimism heading forward.
“Jayd Grossman made a good point. It’s something I guess I’ve got to think of. I don’t think of it much. Nobody wants to hear it. I don’t really want to hear it. We’ve got five guys that played Big Ten games in there last year and played at this place,” Crean said. “We got much better defensively last year after a slow start, and we had guys that had been out there. So it takes time, but there’s no reason we have to over-help. I mean, it’s — no one is beating us off the dribble enough that we’ve got to come and give help out of a corner.”
Among the defensive struggles, some may point to the Hoosiers’ sluggish nonconference schedule as a major reason why the Hoosiers haven’t performed well at the beginning of Big Ten play. Aside from the wins against Kansas and North Carolina, IU is 0-5 against teams inside the KenPom top 120, and its next-best win other than Kansas and North Carolina is Houston Baptist.
Despite the losing streak, Crean said he is certain his guys will stay together and remain positive to get back to the top of the Big Ten. He said it’s not about pounding guys with two-a-days or three-a-days; rather, it’s about just focusing on the definitive work.
“It’s getting better at the fundamentals constantly inside and outside of practice. It’s understanding that you don’t think about it. You don’t talk about it. You just go get better,” Crean said. “They’re a hard-working group. They’re resilient. They have been resilient. They will be. The hard work, character of those kids, I have no issue with it. We have a long season. That’s what we have to focus on.”