By Pete DiPrimio
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Once again, Indiana got knocked down.
Once again, the Hoosiers face a choice – stay down or rise to the challenge.
In this case, beat top-25 Ohio State Monday night at the Schottenstein Center.
Tough loses rock you, and IU was rocked big-time in its last game, a 74-69 home defeat to top-20 Wisconsin last Tuesday that extended its losing streak to four straight.
Were the Hoosiers broken?
Not even close.
Forward Race Thompson insists Indiana, despite four straight defeats and potential not-again dread from previous late-season slumps, is ready for the Ohio State challenge, and the other four remaining regular season games that follow.
“You can not get too up or too down,” he says. “You get back to work.”
He finds proof from the latest practice.
“Everybody was up and ready to go. I think we’re doing good.
“We were down after the Wisconsin. We talked about it as a team. We can not get too down on ourselves. We have five more games left. We have to win these next five. That’s what it’s all about – staying together and keeping our mental right. “
Coach Mike Woodson pushes that message. There is still time – and plenty of quality opponents – to play into NCAA tourney-making certainty.
“It’s my job to try to keep them in the right frame of mind,” Woodson says. “I think we are okay.
“This thing (not making the NCAA tourney since 2016) has been hovering over our basketball program for some years now.
“I explained it to these guys that (previously) we could not win on the road. But once we broke that barrier and won the first game on the road, we knew what that felt like.
“Until we can break this ice… these guys, they do not know what it feels like to make the NCAA Tournament and really compete for a Big Ten title. They do not understand that yet.
“We have five games to go and I think we still control our own destiny. It is not like every game that we have played we have not competed in. We have been in every game. We just have not been able to close and that is kind of disturbing. I put that on myself as the coach because it is my job to get them over the hump. But they still have to play, so it is back-and-forth with the coaches and players.
“Somehow, we have to break the ice.”
Breaking comes down to this:
“The only thing that is going to help is winning,” Woodson says. “When you have a bunch of guys that have never won, the mental thing starts to play a role. It is my job to ease that. There is not a day that goes by in practice that I am not positive, but I still have to coach.I have to push guys to play at a high level.
“If it were not for our defense, I do not think we would be in a lot of these games. We just have to learn how to finish. I have to help them in that category.
IU (16-9 overall, 7-8 in the Big Ten) and Ohio State (16-7, 9-5) were supposed to play on Saturday, but the game was moved to Monday when the Big Ten picked Saturday to make up the postponed Ohio State-Iowa contest.
It gave the Hoosiers a six-day break since the Wisconsin loss. Woodson used two of those days for rest and resetting for the season’s final two weeks.
“For me,” Thompson says, “it was mental. Taking a little break. Come in and get some shots up. Getting away a little bit. Get my mind right.”
Given that Thompson has averaged 14.2 points and 9.2 rebounds in his last five games, and 11.7 and 7.3 overall, imagine what that could mean.
As for his teammates, he says, “A couple of guys need to get their physical right, too.”
Forward Trayce Jackson got his physical right before the Wisconsin game (taking a couple of days off to rest a minor foot injury), and the result was a 30-point performance that was wasted by a lack of supporting offense.
IU’s guards were just 9-for-36 from the field, 4-for-15 from three-point range. Forward Miller Koppbrought in from Northwestern to provide perimeter offense, took only two shots in 24 minutes.
“A couple of guys struggled from the field,” Thompson says. “They’re in the gym working. Hopefully the next game those shots go down.”
Woodson understands the poor-shooting problem, which has basically lasted since the Hoosiers won the Big Ten title in 2016. He’s worked to fix it without cutting back on the defensive emphasis that has produced the conference’s best defense.
“We have been solid defensively,” he says, “but lately we have not been able to make shots. We have to keep working on it. We have to keep shooting in practice and doing the things that can hopefully get us over the hump That is the name of the game.
“When these guys get shots, and some of these guys are getting some pretty good shots, they just have to feel good about making them. That’s where I am with our ball club and our offense right now.”
Adding to the challenge, guard Rob Phinisee is still sidelined with a foot injury.
“He will not be back any time soon,” Woodson says.
Sophomore guard Khristian Landerwho has been banged up for the last couple of months, did not practice on Saturday and, “there’s a chance he might not play.”
Regardless, Woodson adds, “We are shorthanded, but there are plenty of other guys that are wearing a uniform that have to step up until those guys get back.”
All of them have had difference-making moments this season.
Johnson is the only healthy true point guard, with Galloway taking on some of that role. Leal and Bates also are in the mix.
“Ohio State does not press a lot,” Woodson says, “but they will play a 2-2-1 occasionally and back to a 2-3 zone. They do not trap a lot, so we have guards that can get the ball up the floor.
“Initiating and getting us into our offense based on our quick strikes, (Leal and Bates) are not used to doing that.
“It’s what it is. I can not worry about the fact that we do not have certain guys. We just have to mix and match and see what happens.”
One Hoosier advantage – over the last 13 games, they have dropped their turnovers by almost six a game, to 9.7.
IU faces an Ohio State team coming off its first home loss of the season – 75-62 to Iowa on Saturday – and with just two days to recover and prepare.
The Buckeyes were staggered by Iowa’s 20 offensive rebounds and 18 second-chance points, and their 14 turnovers that the Hawkeyes converted into 16 points.
They are led by EJ Liddell, who averages 19.7 points and 7.6 rebounds. He shoots 51.5% from the field, and has made 34 three-pointers.
“He’s a good player,” Thompson says. “It comes down to playing hard and playing team defense. When he has the ball, everybody is loaded up on his side. It’s knowing where he’s at and what he wants to do.”
As a team, Ohio State shoots 47.6% overall, 37.6% from three-point range.
In January’s first meeting, which the Hoosiers won 67-51 at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, the Buckeyes shot just 30.8%. Liddell was limited to 11 points.
“We have a big game at Ohio State,” Woodson says. “They lost on their home floor (on Saturday). They are going to be hungry based on the game that we had here.
“We have to come ready to play. We will have to commit for 40 minutes just like we did when we played them at home.”