Minutes before the tip-off of Indiana vs. Michigan State, my dad turned to me and said “You know, Indiana could be 13-1 right now.” And he wasn’t wrong. A two-point loss to Eastern Washington was certainly avoidable and the Hoosiers were the better team in Madison Square Garden for much of their four-point overtime loss to Georgetown.
Through the 2014 portion of their schedule, they had been playing like a team that could surpass its ninth-place predicted finish in an unofficial preseason poll that surveyed 27 Big Ten media members. Indiana had defeated ranked teams in No. 22 SMU and No. 23 Butler in addition to beating Pittsburgh rather handily. Despite the Hoosiers’ warts — a porous defense, inconsistent frontcourt play and rebounding struggles — all in all, they had managed to play pretty well over the course of their first 14 games. The loss to Eastern Washington is definitely a blemish on their resume and the final score in their loss to No. 4 Louisville wasn’t pretty, but there hadn’t been a night where they frankly didn’t show up ready to play.
That game came on Monday night in East Lansing, Mich. against Michigan State. It was so bad that after watching the game, I had to cleanse myself and remove myself from basketball for a while before digesting what just happened. Five episodes of Modern Family later, I was ready to face my DVR and tackle some game film. Here’s what went wrong for the Hoosiers in their 20-point loss:
- Hanner Mosquera-Perea’s start to the game couldn’t have been any worse. After posting his first career double-double in Indiana’s win at Nebraska, the junior forward picked up two fouls in the opening 84 seconds of the game. The first foul may have been a questionable call by the official when Mosquera-Perea attempted to cut off Denzel Valentine’s drive to the basket, but his second was completely avoidable. After James Blackmon Jr. missed a three-point attempt, Michigan State’s Gavin Schilling and Matt Costello crashed the boards. As the ball was falling into Schilling’s hands, Mosquera-Perea jumped to contest for the rebound and bumped into Schilling. Twenty-one seconds after picking up his first foul, he picked up his second foul when he should have been running back on defense. Mosquera-Perea was immediately substituted out of the game, but Indiana coach Tom Crean had no choice but to play the forward later in the first half as the Spartans jumped out to a big lead. With two fouls early in the game, Mosquera-Perea was gun-shy when he went back in the game.
- Indiana’s offense was incredibly stagnant in the first half, in terms of both ball movement and players moving without the ball. The offense was often initiated far from the rim and there was little action in the paint, where Crean has repeatedly insisted throughout the season that the ball must move through in order for the Hoosiers to have offensive success. On the Hoosiers’ 35 first-half possessions, Indiana averaged 4.3 passes per possession and many of them were dribble handoffs and passes near the far edge of the coaching box that didn’t progress the team’s offense.
- The Hoosiers struggled when Yogi Ferrell wasn’t playing point guard. With the additions of James Blackmon Jr. and Robert Johnson in Indiana’s starting lineup, Crean has the luxury of backcourt depth. Instead of relying solely on Ferrell for offensive initiation and production, something that happened all too often last season, Indiana can use Blackmon Jr., Johnson, Stanford Robinson and now Troy Williams to bring the ball up the court and run the offense while Ferrell plays off the ball. While such an offensive strategy paid off during the Hoosiers’ non-conference schedule and gave their younger players valuable in-game experience, Indiana’s offense frequently stalled against Michigan State when Ferrell wasn’t running the point. No one on the team has a better knowledge and feel for the Big Ten than Ferrell, and he has a career-best offensive rating, assist rate and turnover rate this season. He needs to be Indiana’s go-to guy more often, especially in crisis.
- Somewhat related to the last observation, Stanford Robinson remains a liability offensively. He uses a team-high 30.2 percent of Indiana’s possessions (meaning 30.2 percent on Indiana’s possessions when Robinson is on the court end because of him — due to a turnover, made shot or missed shot that ends the team’s possession). At the same time, he has the lowest offensive rating (80.3) of all Hoosier players who have played at least 20 percent of the available minutes this season and it’s by quite a large margin (the next lowest is Max Hoetzel’s 108.0 offensive rating). It’s a really bad combination for a player who’s trying to earn minutes off the bench and prove that he’s deserving of a major role in Crean’s rotation. Shortly after entering the game in the first half against Michigan State, Robinson forced (and missed) two bad shots in the span of three possessions. For a team that flourishes on offense because of its floor spacing, jump shooters and willingness to make the next pass in order to find a better shot, Robinson can take the wind out of Indiana’s sails when he looks for his own shot in the lane when opposing defenses are collapsing on him.
- The Hoosiers’ transition game — on offense and defense — was less than stellar on Monday night. Indiana only scored 10 fast break points to Michigan State’s 23. Much of the Spartans’ 36-17 halftime lead was built up thanks to their ability to score in transition, from their first bucket of the game (a Lourawls Nairn Jr. jumper) to a three-pointer from Bryn Forbes to multiple Branden Dawson dunks. On the other end, Indiana struggled to get out in the open floor and get open looks before Michigan State’s defense was set.
- Indiana absolutely got worked on defense and on the boards. Michigan State had 21 assists on 28 made field goals and had excellent ball movement all night. The Spartans passed up good shots for even better shots and were unselfish with the ball. Despite not having a primary scorer this season, Michigan State showed its balance and depth against Indiana as nine players made at least one field goal. The Spartans nearly doubled up the Hoosiers on the glass, out-rebounding Indiana 50-28, grabbing 53 percent of their missed shots and having the same number of offensive rebounds (17) as Indiana had defensive rebounds. Michigan State’s offensive rebounding led to 17 second-chance points.
- It’s a fairly safe bet to say that Monday night will be Indiana’s worst three-point shooting performance of the season and for the Hoosiers’ sake, they better hope so. Indiana was 5-of-24 from behind the arc. Ferrell was 3-of-10, Blackmon Jr. was 0-of-5 and Nick Zeisloft was 1-of-6. Part of the problem was the Spartans’ perimeter defense, which is 13th in the country in three-point percentage defense, but the Hoosiers also missed their fair share of open looks. Time and time again on the Big Ten Network broadcast, Seth Davis mentioned that the game wasn’t quite out of reach for Indiana because of their ability to light it up from deep and go on big scoring runs. There were several situations in which the Hoosiers could have partially closed the gap and at least made the game interesting, but nothing was falling for Indiana.
- Branden Dawson absolutely got the best of Troy Williams. Williams has been playing well of late, but he took a step back against Michigan State and was dominated by Dawson. The Spartans’ senior guard-forward finished the night with 14 points, 13 rebounds, two assists, two steals and two blocks in 35 minutes as Williams had zero points and one rebound in 17 minutes. Dawson brought energy and physicality to the game and Indiana had no answer for him.
It’s hard to pinpoint what led to Indiana getting demolished on the road at Michigan State. The Hoosiers fell to 1-20 all-time at the Breslin Center, so clearly they haven’t had the best luck playing in East Lansing, Mich., but Indiana won at Nebraska just days earlier and Michigan State’s students weren’t back in school so it’s hard to imagine that the road environment rattled Indiana enough to lose by 20.
After reflecting on Indiana’s loss and trying to figure out where the Hoosiers stand in the Big Ten, I thought of a question frequently asked by ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt: Was it a moment or a movement?
In other words, was the loss an aberration and a product of Indiana having an off-night on the road against a good team in the midst of a long college basketball season? Or, does Indiana have fundamental, underlying flaws that were exploited by Michigan State and could be a sign of further struggles in conference play?
The answer is probably somewhere in the middle. Indiana’s not going to get any taller and its defense will continue to be a liability — things that Crean & Co. will have to build gameplans around — but Monday night was also a perfect storm of a bad shooting night and foul trouble for its biggest player on the road against a fundamentally sound team in an arena in which it has historically struggled.
However, the Hoosiers won’t be able to hang their heads for long because No. 22 Ohio State travels to Bloomington to face Indiana at noon on Saturday.