INDIANAPOLIS — There has to be a sense of direction in games like these.
In a New Year’s Eve matinee against No. 6 Louisville, No. 16 Indiana didn’t seem to have one.
The Hoosiers struggled to find their way against the Cardinals’ length, while also competing against their own indecision in a 77-62 loss before a partisan crowd in Saturday’s Countdown Classic.
Too much dribbling, too many turnovers and disrupted shots. In its second game in two weeks at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indiana found the result strikingly similar.
This, however, was IU’s worst offensive performance of the season, a 32-percent shooting day against the nation’s top-ranked defense. On the other hand, the Hoosiers saw just how far their defensive play must come to match their peers.
All around, this was a rotten way to end what had been a special calendar year.
“When we didn’t make the next pass, when we tried to dribble with the ball in front of our body against the length, we got rushed,” IU coach Tom Crean said. “That’s when we didn’t make shots. We had so many open shots we missed. That’s tough for us. … The defensive issues (were) we just weren’t active enough, and we didn’t get enough hands on balls. It’s our lowest deflection night of 37. We weren’t as good at that as we needed to be, and certainly we don’t have their length, but we need to have that kind of activity, and there were times that we didn’t get that done.”
So the Hoosiers didn’t get the win, dropping back-to-back games for the first time since the end of the 2014-15 season.
Indiana’s struggles Saturday were wide-ranging.
Thomas Bryant was outplayed by Anas Mahmoud. De’Ron Davis, while he brought the kind of toughness IU needed in his first career start, missed too many shots in front of the rim.
IU’s backcourt was all over the place, too. Robert Johnson went 1-for-13 from the field, while Josh Newkirk didn’t score his first basket until the 5:24 mark of the second half. James Blackmon Jr. posted a double-double of 10 points and 11 rebounds, but he was one of the Hoosiers Crean had to remind about offensive duties and his responsibility of moving without the ball.
At times, Crean mixed and matched lineups and asked Juwan Morgan to assume the role of point forward, while OG Anunoby came off the bench to score a team-high 14 points.
“We are a moving team, and we’ve got some guys that are not very good at moving without the ball,” Crean said. “We tried to put some things in for them that would get them to move conceptually. When we’re playing our best is when we’re randomly cutting, and we didn’t get enough of that today, and that’s the disappointing part. That was a huge part of our plan. As far as attacking the rim and driving it to make the next pass, not trying to shoot it on their shot blockers, I thought we did a pretty good job on that. But we missed too many 3s, we missed too many layups, we missed too many one-foot jump hooks, and it hurt us.”
There were 10 lead changes and five ties early in the contest, until IU got stuck in multiple stretches when it went several minutes between field goals. The Hoosiers’ turnover problems also remained largely unchecked, with nine of their eventual 14 errors coming in the first 12 minutes.
By the final media time out of the first half, IU (10-4) was mired in a 1-for-11 rut from the field. The Hoosiers were completely cold, allowing the Cardinals (12-2) to take a 34-24 lead with 1:40 remaining in the period.
Louisville’s advantage was 39-27 by halftime, at which point IU jogged into the locker room without a single field goal during the final 5:29 of the first half. The Hoosiers shot merely 24 percent (7-for-29) from the field and struggled to establish their footing.
There was nobody to take control, nobody to lift them up and provide the necessary guidance. Here were the Hoosiers, once again ambling without a voice.
“We’ve just got to step up,” Blackmon said. “We’ve got Josh, we’ve got Rob and me and also Devonte (Green) and Curtis (Jones) to call to in those positions, so I don’t think that that’ll be a big huge problem for us. We’ve just got to work more on it.”
Louisville’s advantage swelled to 15 points three minutes into the second half. Indiana brought it back to single digits three minutes later with some tough, confident play by Davis, who fought for a putback that got IU within 48-40. A run to the free throw line brought IU within 50-44 at the under-12 timeout.
But that was as close as Indiana could get.
Donovan Mitchell willed his way to a career-high 25 points, hitting 3s, driving to the rim and drawing fouls. Mitchell had started every game as Louisville’s shooting guard, but came off the bench Saturday. His previous two games saw him combine to shoot 6-for-23 from the field with six turnovers.
Against the Hoosiers, he demonstrated his potential as arguably the Cardinals’ top offensive weapon.
“He’s a really nice young man. We recruited him,” Crean said. “I hope for his sake and their sake that he continues to play like that, because obviously he played a little different than he’s played as of late, and it goes to show, you can be in a slump at a certain point in time, and you bust out, and I hope he plays great for them.
“But we’ve got some of the same type of guys. They had a tough day, and I’ve got great belief that we will recover from that.”