Consistency is the mark of a quality team. Unfortunately for IU, consistency is almost non-existent for the Hoosiers.
After stringing together four quality outings -- vs. Illinois, Michigan State, Minnesota and Iowa -- the Hoosiers turned in two up-and-down performances in road losses to Purdue and Michigan. On one hand, Indiana showed a lot of heart in putting up solid fights against the Boilermakers and Wolverines. After all, IU trailed Purdue by just seven points with 6 minutes, 40 seconds to play before eventually losing by 14, and Indiana never backed down against the more talented and experienced Boilers. Four nights later, the Hoosiers gave Michigan all it could handle in Ann Arbor, losing by four points.
Both games, however, were studies in IU's inconsistent ways.
The Hoosiers played tough defense and did a good job of running its offense for the first 20 minutes against Purdue, but the second half saw IU play with patience on one possession, then string together three or four reckless, lazy possessions. The same problem cropped up on defense, an issue that allowed Purdue to build enough of a cushion to never really feel threatened.
IU did the same thing at Michigan: lazy, sloppy basketball in the first half -- the Hoosiers posted 10 turnovers in the first 20 minutes -- and fell behind by as many as 22 points with 5:26 to play. Then, without warning, IU came to life and showed energy at both ends of the floor, setting tough screens and making sharp cuts on offense. That 22-point Michigan lead was lopped in just more than three minutes, and IU made a game of it late. The effort was too little, too late, but the fact the Hoosiers made the push showed they were capable of playing good basketball. They just didn't actually do it.
Belief has been a problem for IU all season, and although Indiana has scored some solid wins and come close on a number of other occasions, the Hoosiers' inconsistency is a sign that the losing is starting to get to the players. The good news is IU plays better at home, and three of the Hoosiers' next four games are at Assembly Hall. Indiana also has a week to prepare for Northwestern, which should allow head coach Tom Crean to refocus for the stretch run.
The last time IU had a week to prepare for a team it scored a 19-point win over Michigan at home. If Crean can get a consistent effort out of his team Feb. 19 vs. the Wildcats, the Hoosiers will get a boost of confidence. Stringing together a solid 40 minutes has been a tough task for the young IU squad, but Crean is confident he can push his team to do so over the next couple of weeks.
--Junior G Verdell Jones III's shooting slump has reached three games after he went 2-of-7 from the floor vs. Michigan. Jones scored 12 points vs. the Wolverines, but most of those tallies came from the free-throw line. IU's second-leading scorer is now 8-of-30 in his last three games entering the Feb. 19 game against Northwestern.
--Freshman G Victor Oladipo continues to impress with his development over the past couple of weeks. He scored IU's first four points vs. Michigan on thunderous dunks, and he has been attacking the basket with a vengeance. He also is rebounding better, and his defense has improved as well. Coach Tom Crean still is looking for more consistency, but he also likes the swagger the freshman has brought to the lineup.
--Junior F Tom Pritchard continues to make his presence felt on the glass. He's averaging just 4.1 rebounds on the season, but over his last few games, he has become far more active. He came off the bench vs. Michigan to play 21 minutes, but he grabbed seven boards in the limited time. In his last five Big Ten games, he's averaging 6.4 rebounds and is doing a better job of staying out of foul trouble.
BY THE NUMBERS: .207 -- Indiana's 3-point percentage in its last two games, well below its season percentage of .362 from beyond the arc. IU has made more than five three-pointers in a game just twice in the past month.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "He punk'd our guys. He really did. It should have never been that way. But he's a really good player." -- Tom Crean on the play of Michigan's Tim Hardaway, Jr., who scored 26 points on 9-of-11 shooting vs. the Hoosiers. Hardaway scored 15 of his points in the second half.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--vs. Northwestern, Feb. 19
KEY MATCHUPS: Indiana will have to play patient, disciplined defense vs. a Wildcat squad that overwhelmed the Hoosiers in Evanston back in January. IU has to find a way to contain NU's John Shurna, whose versatility makes him a tough matchup, and Indiana's guards will have to keep Northwestern's Michael Thompson from getting into the paint. IU sophomore F Christian Watford will have to play physical defense on the perimeter, and the Hoosiers must pack the paint to disrupt the Wildcats' cuts through the lane.
FUTURES MARKET: Senior G Jeremiah Rivers only has a handful of games remaining in his college career, but head coach Tom Crean would like to see him stay more focused on his role during that stretch. Rivers has been a defensive wizard for Indiana this season, but over the past couple of games he hasn't been quite as effective, and he lost his cool vs. Michigan in Ann Arbor and was whistled for a technical foul.
Crean said he has had some long talks with Rivers about returning to his defensive roots and simply concentrate on shutting down the opponents' best scorer on every possession. When Rivers is playing tight defense, IU is far more successful, but Rivers has felt more pressure to make things happen on the offensive end due to recent injuries. That has thrown him off his game on both ends of the court, and that lack of focus has led to foul trouble.
After fouling out in just 14 minutes vs. Michigan, Rivers will have to work hard to rebuild some of the trust Crean has shown in him this season. Rivers and Crean have a tight enough relationship to avoid any problems between the two, but Rivers will have to work harder than ever in practice to show Crean he's ready to finish his college days on a high note in Bloomington.
--Sophomore F Christian Watford made a somewhat surprising return to the Hoosiers' lineup just 10 days after undergoing hand surgery. Watford didn't start, but he came off the bench to score a team-high 14 points in 22 minutes vs. Michigan Feb. 12.
--Hoosier recruit Cody Zeller, a 6-11 power forward from Washington, Ind., became IU's 25th McDonald's All-American when he was named to the team Feb. 10. Zeller is averaging 25.0 points and 13.7 rebounds for Washington this season.
--Freshman walk-on F Jeff Howard made his second appearance in a Big Ten game Feb. 12 vs. Michigan. Howard isn't getting in during garbage time, either. Howard entered the game with 5:10 remaining in the first half, and although he played less than two minutes, his presence in the lineup was significant. Head coach Tom Crean turned to Howard before he tabbed sophomore F Bobby Capobianco, a scholarship player. Capobianco played the final 27 seconds of the first half and never returned to the lineup. What it means to Capobianco's long-term status with the team remains to be seen.
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