After the Hoosiers suffered their third loss in four games, Indiana coach Archie Miller tried to steer the conversation to a more positive place.
“As frustrating, as angry, whatever you want to say, we have to stay with what we are doing,” Miller said, “because we are getting better.”
The losses in Big Ten play are starting to pile up like wreckage on a snowed-over highway, making it harder to see an avenue of escape. But it’s true, in some ways, the Hoosiers are showing signs of improvement. That’s why they have played in so many close games.
On the other hand, this frustratingly inconsistent team has also had far too many points of regression. That’s why they have lost so many of those games.
To illustrate the point, let’s compare the Hoosiers’ first five Big Ten contests against the second five, as well as averages from Miller’s past teams at IU. It isn’t all bad. But it isn’t all good, either.
Shooting on an upswing
One of the major gripes during Miller’s three-plus seasons is that his teams can’t shoot. His first team shot 34.3 percent from 3-point range in conference games, followed by an abysmal 27.5 percent in his second year.
Finally, it seems like IU may be heading in the right direction.
Through the first five games of Big Ten play, IU’s 3-point percentage was in line with last year’s average, around 32 percent, but they are 34-of-83 — nearly 41 percent — from 3-point range in their last five Big Ten games. IU’s overall field goal percentage is trending, as well, from 41.8 percent in conference games two years ago, up to 43.6 percent last season, and now at 45.3 percent.
The Hoosiers have hit eight 3s or more in four of their last six games. Al Durham, Anthony Leal, and Jerome Hunter have all hit better than 37 percent from 3-point range in Big Ten play, and Armaan Franklin (43.3) and Khristian Lander (54.5) are well beyond that. More players than ever appear capable of hitting shots.
It isn’t time to pop the champagne, though. Including non-conference games, IU has averaged 6.3 3-point makes per contest, which still ranks last in the Big Ten. And while 3-point shooting has improved in the last five games, the overall field goal percentage is slightly down in the last five (46 to 44.6 percent), which means the Hoosiers haven’t been as efficient from 2-point range.
Plus, Hunter didn’t play versus Illinois because of a coach’s decision. Franklin is playing hurt. Lander’s numbers come from a small sample (6-of-11). So there are reasons to worry this trend could be stifled at any point. But a trendline is there. For the better.
Free-throw shooting falters
Given the Hoosiers have been more proficient at hitting shots beyond the arc, their inability to hit free throws has been even more maddening.
It seemed poised for a turnaround, too. In the first five games of Big Ten play, IU hit 54-of-72 (75 percent) from the line, well above the 68-percent rates the program has posted under Miller in two previous seasons.
In their last five games, the Hoosiers have almost doubled their free throw attempts, getting 140 opportunities at the charity stripe. That’s a lot. But they converted 87 of those. That’s a 62.1 percent rate.
IU missed 13 free throws in a 12-point loss to Purdue. There were 11 missed free throws in a four-point, overtime loss to Illinois. Even in a 12-point win at Iowa, the Hoosiers left 14 points at the free-throw line.
What is most concerning: the Hoosiers’ worst offenders get to the line the most. Trayce Jackson-Davis leads the Big Ten in attempts and makes, 103-of-152, but that’s a 67.8-percent conversion rate. Race Thompson is 45-of-75 from the line in Big Ten play, or 60 percent.
One positive is Durham, a 65-percent shooter from the line through seven conference games, has hit 16-of-18 from the stripe in his last three contests. But more Hoosiers must get on track, or they risk forfeiting progress that’s been made in other areas.
Ball security (was) improving
From the very beginning, Miller honestly appraised his team as having a small “margin for error.”
This isn’t a team filled with dynamic scoring guards. While there are plus rebounders in Jackson-Davis and Thompson, IU isn’t the biggest team in the Big Ten, either, so the Hoosiers can’t bludgeon opponents on the boards. They have to be sound, play smart, and limit mistakes.
Comparing the first five Big Ten games with the next five, the Hoosiers have taken care of the ball better, going from 60 turnovers to 52. The trouble is the latter number includes 27 in IU’s last two games. It’s even more concerning that 20 of those 27 came after halftime.
Cut out two bad halves versus Rutgers and Illinois, and the Hoosiers would be averaging eight turnovers per game in the other eight halves combined. That’s an improvement. But the Hoosiers have tossed it away when it matters most.
Again, this isn’t a team with a huge margin for error. IU ranks 11th and 12th, respectively, in the Big Ten in defensive and offensive rebounding. In conference games, IU has averaged 7.8 offensive boards per game, compared to last season’s average of 11.1 in Big Ten play.
Those numbers have improved, as well. IU grabbed 30 offensive rebounds in the first five games, compared to 48 in the past five. Still, there aren’t enough second chances to be had on the boards for the Hoosiers to be giving the ball away off misguided passes or via charges.
In moments, the Hoosiers have been more secure with the ball. That’s good. But in critical moments, they haven’t been sound. That’s bad.
Perimeter defense lags
One more area where the Hoosiers need to improve: perimeter defense.
In conference play, IU’s opponents have hit 37.7 percent of their 3-point shots, which somewhat negates some of the strides the Hoosiers have made offensively. Even more worrisome, opponents have hit 40-of-92 from 3 — or 43.5 percent — in IU’s last five games.
Geo Baker was able to fill it up for Rutgers. While Ayo Dosunmu was mostly contained in the Illinois loss, Trent Frazier was able to get going from deep.
The Hoosiers have been hampered, again, by Franklin’s ankle injury. He’s one of IU’s better perimeter defenders. It probably didn’t help to have Trey Galloway sidelined with back issues, either.
But somehow, in the next 10 games, IU must do a better job of limiting shooters. Just reverting to the form of the last two seasons — allowing rates of 34.3 and 33.3 percent from 3, respectively, in Big Ten play — would give the Hoosiers a much better shot at winning games.