EVANSTON – Things will likely get worse before they get better for Indiana (12-7), which lost its fifth straight game in a 73-66 defeat at Northwestern on Tuesday.
Next up is a home game against No. 5 Michigan on Friday, followed by trips to Rutgers and No. 6 Michigan State. The game at Rutgers that’s sandwiched between contests against the top two teams in the Big Ten is no gimme, either. The Scarlet Knights have already beaten Ohio State and Nebraska at home.
After spending six consecutive weeks in the AP Top 25 poll, Indiana now hopes to stay afloat in the competitive Big Ten after its current losing streak has taken the wind out of its sails following an 11-2 record in non-conference play and a 3-0 start in the Big Ten.
“We had our opportunities there in the last six minutes to keep it at one possession,” Indiana Coach Archie Miller said after the game. “We weren’t good enough and didn’t shoot the ball well enough on the road to win.”
Indiana had five players score in double figures – the team’s most since a win over Jacksonville exactly a month prior on December 22. In three of the five games since, only freshman guard Romeo Langford and senior forward Juwan Morgan cracked the 10-point mark as the Hoosiers have looked for a consistent third scoring option all winter.
In Evanston, they finally had scoring balance as starters Rob Phinisee and Justin Smith, as well as reserve guard Aljami Durham, also reached double figures. But no one besides Durham, who scored 11 of Indiana’s 13 bench points on 4-of-7 shooting, was particularly efficient.
Morgan scored a game-high 18 points on 15 shots and Langford needed 10 shots to score 12 points.
“(Langford) wasn’t able to throw up that huge night against us,” Northwestern Coach Chris Collins said. “You just try to make it tough, he missed some shots he normally makes … if you can eliminate his layups and free throws and try to make him take tough shots. You gotta live with the results, and he made a few of them, too.”
Without junior guard Devonte Green, the team’s fourth-leading scorer who was suspended Tuesday for not meeting program standards and did not make the trip to Northwestern, Indiana essentially played a six-man rotation.
Five players, including Durham off the bench, played at least 32 minutes, while reserves Evan Fitzner, Damezi Anderson, Clifton Moore and Jake Forrester played roughly 12 minutes combined.
Walk-on Zach McRoberts started and played more than 18 minutes. He was held scoreless for the 10th time this season.
“We have to continue to find more from other people,” Miller said.
Only Langford, Morgan and Smith have played in all 19 of Indiana’s games this season as the Hoosiers have battled through a variety of injuries.
Most notably, 6-7 freshman forward Jerome Hunter, Indiana’s second-highest rated 2018 recruit behind Langford, has been out indefinitely after undergoing surgery in November with what the program classified as a “lower body injury.” Junior forward De’Ron Davis was dressed in street clothes on the bench on Tuesday and he has played sparingly this season after tearing his Achilles last January.
That’s how Indiana wound up with such a short rotation, which got thinner with Green’s suspension.
“That is what it is right now. That is what it is right now,” Miller said, repeating himself, when asked about six players logging the majority of Indiana’s minutes against Northwestern. “Until we can find some more off the bench, until we can find some more opportunities to get those guys in, that’s what it was tonight.
“Hopefully it’ll be different as we continue to evolve as the season goes. Tonight, those guys logged a lot of minutes and that’s probably what it’s going to be.”
Indiana has two of the top 10 scorers in the Big Ten in Langford and Morgan, and the Hoosiers will go only as far as those two can take them in what is likely the last season either will spend at Indiana, given Langford’s status as a potential top-five pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.
Each is an incredibly efficient scorer inside the arc, which are the opportunities that Indiana’s offense is designed to create. As recently as mid-January, Langford was first nationally with a 78 percent shooting percentage at the rim and Morgan’s 67 percent field goal percentage on two-point attempts is in the top 50 in the country.
“Being able to score the ball from two at a high percentage is what we’ve done all year,” Miller said. “I think teams have obviously adjusted trying to take that away and we’ve got to be better.”
No matter how productive each of Indiana’s All-Big Ten candidates is around the rim, both are missing a critical component of a well-rounded offensive game. Langford is shooting just 21.7 percent on 3.6 three-point attempts per game. Morgan has a free throw rate of less than 30 percent – he attempts just over three free throws per game – and he’s only a 59 percent free throw shooter.
Indiana is missing the three-point shooting to pair with its 57.5 shooting percentage on twos, which ranks fifth nationally.
Indiana ranks among the bottom 35 teams nationally in the percent of its field goal attempts that are three-pointers (31.8%) and the percent of its points that come from threes (23.6%). The Hoosiers have three players – Phinisee, Durham and Morgan – who shoot 39 or 40 percent from three but each averages somewhere between 0.9 and 1.1 threes game.
Indiana was just 4-of-21 (19%) from three against Northwestern and it’s last in Big Ten play with a 26.8 three-point percentage. The Hoosiers couldn’t keep up as Northwestern’s Aaron Falzon scored a career-high 21 points on 6-of-7 three-point shooting.
“We’ve never shot a lot of them,” Miller said “That’s not who we’ve been.”
The key for Indiana offensively lies in better ball movement and player movement to allow its top two scorers easier looks around the basket. Hopefully, for the Hoosiers’ sake, a consistent third scoring option emerges along the way.
“We have to continue to find more movement,” Miller said. “It’s been a challenge with this team the way that some teams are guarding us, we’re not able to move the ball and move ourselves as much.
“When we did, good things happened for us in the game.”
Now Indiana will have to lick its wounds and hope to find a more free-flowing offense against Michigan, which possesses the most efficient defense in the conference.
That’s why things might get worse for the Hoosiers before they get better.