LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — Imagine where this Indiana University basketball team would be sitting if the Hoosiers could make … a … free … throw.
Not the way Steve Alford or Yogi Ferrell made free throws. Let’s not get carried away, everybody.
Just make free throws the way your basic Big Ten college basketball player should be able to make them. Say, 70%, which would merely be 10th best in the Big Ten.
Indiana has lost three games in overtime to top-20 opponents. After the Hoosiers burped against Illinois, 75-71, in overtime Tuesday night at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, coach Archie Miller said a lack of toughness explained IU's failure to win close games.
Put it on the list. There’s no single reason for the malaise percolating around Miller’s team.
If you’re scoring at home, I’d rank lack of toughness above strange roster management. But it would be below winning guard play and uninspiring offensive philosophy on the list of what ails Indiana basketball — again.
And free throws. I’m not finished talking about free throws.
Throw in one free throw against Florida State, another against Wisconsin and one more against Illinois. Then the Hoosiers are 12-5.
Brick, brick, brick.
Seven missed free throws against FSU. Just three (in eight attempts) at Wisconsin. Add 11 more blanks (in 34 attempts) against the beatable Illini.
Instead of 12-5, Miller’s team is 9-8 and gasping to stay above the cut line for the NCAA Tournament for the fourth consecutive season.
Consider this: Two computer rankings consider Indiana the best eight-loss team in America. Maybe there’s a participation ribbon for that. There won’t be a court storm.
Even after IU lost another game it easily could have won, the Hoosiers showed up at No. 28 in Ken Pomeroy's rankings, No. 24 in Jeff Sagarin’s predictor ratings and No. 31 in Bart Torvik’s formula Wednesday.
They’re not terrible. They’re just terrible at things that decide winning and losing, like making two field goals in their final 16 possessions over the final 11-plus minutes against Illinois.
The Hoosiers appear determined to play themselves out of NCAA consideration with maddening stretches of inept offense, crushing defensive breakdowns and going thump, thump, thump at the foul line.
As I noted, Miller questioned the toughness of his guys.
Some perspective: A lack of toughness has been thrown around like free T-shirts this season.
Louisville coach Chris Mack said his team got bullied when Cardinals lost to Florida State. Punked was another word used by Mack.
(Quick question: Name a coach who wants his guys known for playing soft. I’ll hang up and listen.)
When Kentucky lost to Alabama last week, John Calipari trotted out the T-word to describe how the Wildcats performed in the final four minutes.
"We again got out-toughed, and it just makes me sick," Calipari said.
Coaching 101: When in doubt, question the toughness in your locker room.
Got it. But there is more than one item on Indiana’s considerable to-do list.
If Indiana made one more free throw, there would be no toughness discussion today.
Free-throw shooting, more than toughness, has been a persistent issue for Miller’s teams at IU.
This is the fourth consecutive season of blah foul shooting. Every Miller team has made less than 68% of its free throws in Big Ten games — ranking in the bottom half of the league in 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021.
Call it toughness. Call it coaching. Call it recruiting. Call it player development. Call it ridiculous.
Just call 911 and dispatch a shot doctor to Bloomington.
In fact, ask the shot doctor to bring some 2021 offensive sets. Miller keeps running stuff that fell out of favor with the Pony Express.
Indiana attempted eight 3-pointers against Illinois — just three in the final 25 minutes.
It’s a crazy world out there. There’s keyless entry, touchscreen banking and strategies to get shots for guys who can make 3-pointers — if they are recruited, developed and encouraged.
That has not been a priority for Miller. His offensive philosophy tilts toward working the ball inside. But with an injured player and two open scholarships, the Hoosiers are light on front-court talent.
Miller does have six guards. He does not have any I would consider triple threats or top of the Big Ten guys. There’s no reason to name names. If you have watched this team, you can fill in the blanks.
One is persistently sloppy with the ball. Another has lost every drop of confidence. Another is routinely a step slow as a lateral defender.
A fourth cannot make a shot deeper than a drive. A fifth passes the ball as quickly as he can find an open teammate. A sixth is attacked by opposing guards as soon as he enters.
Ferrell, Alford, Eric Gordon or Quinn Buckner are not walking through that door.
It’s a group with reasonable collective talent, but mostly it’s a group just good enough to get beat. Eight times.
Especially when Indiana doesn’t play with toughness — or make free throws.
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