Indiana’s mid-season slide has come to this — a must-win home game against Penn State.
Back-to-back road losses have put the Hoosiers against the wall entering the second half of the Big Ten season.
With five of the final nine games scheduled away from Bloomington, Wednesday’s 6:30 game against the Nittany Lions is a critical opportunity for IU to find an important home win, re-establish its footing and continue to learn how to play without its leading scorer.
“They’re going through a real life lesson right now,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said. “They really are. When you deal with the adversity of losing not only players, but key players, absolutely go-to players on the team, it forces everybody up a level of responsibility — some more than others. Whether they’re ready for it or not is an individual determination based on where they’re at confidence-wise.”
So the Hoosiers will once again be without James Blackmon Jr., who suffered what’s being called a lower leg injury last Thursday at Michigan.
Blackmon’s loss continues to sting, both in terms of recognizing how toothless Indiana’s offense looked without him Sunday at Northwestern, and in terms of remembering how he bailed out the Hoosiers from a near-collapse two weeks ago in State College.
While Thomas Bryant did his part to fill the void in production against the Wildcats on Sunday, tying his career high with 23 points and grabbing 12 rebounds, those around him didn’t do enough.
Juwan Morgan appeared far from 100 percent after returning from his foot injury last week, moving across court with a noticeable hobble. Meanwhile, fellow starters Josh Newkirk, Robert Johnson and Devonte Green combined to shoot 6-for-28 from the field.
Sunday saw the Hoosiers turn in a season-worst 0.87 points per possession. For the year, they’re scoring 1.18 points per possession.
But Indiana’s adversity is not focused solely on the offensive end. Its defense continues to be a non-factor when the Hoosiers have needed it most.
Especially with Blackmon sinking shots, IU had the ability to overcome deficits and mask many of the holes and missed assignments on the defensive end of the floor.
Now, the Hoosiers are still trying to put enough good segments together to prove they can play winning basketball despite their flaws — and their lengthy injury report.
“It’s not easy because we have young guys that are absolutely not even close to being ready for what we’re asking them to do,” Crean said. “We have older guys that are not ready to have it ratcheted up like that, but at the same time, it’s in real time and you have to play games and you have to practice. You have to improve, and that’s where we’re at.”
That means bringing along the underclassmen, especially IU’s freshmen guards.
Devonte Green made his first career start at Northwestern, and while he did a decent job at times guarding Wildcats point guard Bryant McIntosh, Green still needs to simplify his offensive profile.
Like Morgan, Curtis Jones was also playing at a less than ideal level on Sunday. Jones injured his ankle during Friday’s practice and played merely three minutes against Northwestern.
“I hope he plays better,” Crean said. “He was definitely limited the other day. We could see it early on.”
Regardless of the injury report, entering February, Indiana needs to rely more on its cast of underclassmen — a point that’s not lost on them.
“I think that goes for the whole team,” Morgan said. “Freshmen are not freshmen. Sophomores are not sophomores. Juniors are not juniors. We have to continue to push and grow as a unit.”
In the Nittany Lions, the Hoosiers will see a team that can score with balance — and also one that has been similarly sloppy.
Both IU and Penn State are averaging 13.8 turnovers per game. Only Rutgers (15.6) is turning in more mistakes per contest.
After Indiana pulled out the last-second 78-75 victory at the Bryce Jordan Center on Jan. 18, Penn State went on to lose its next two games against Purdue and Wisconsin before beating Illinois, 71-67, at home on Saturday. That win, however, saw the Lions nearly blow a 22-point second-half advantage.
IU flirted with its own collapse in State College two weeks ago, and realizes this Penn State squad is no pushover.
At the same time, Indiana is also looking at itself and its own flaws, recognizing that they need to change things for the better, no matter which players are on the floor.
“You just have to continue to keep getting better and better, and keep improving,” Crean said. “That’s what we’re working on. That’s what our whole focus is.”
NOTE: Sophomore forward OG Anunoby underwent successful surgery Tuesday to repair his injured right knee.