For a brief, 30-second period on Thursday night, the IU men’s basketball team’s defense was perfect.
During an early defensive possession with around 17 minutes left in the first half of the Hoosiers’ home matchup against Iowa, it was quite telling of what this team is capable of even though it meant little in IU’s eventual 77-72 setback.
Iowa junior Tyler Cook received an entry pass in the post, and sophomore Justin Smith gravitated toward him to double-down with senior teammate Juwan Morgan.
Seeing the double, Cook whipped the ball out to an open teammate on the perimeter, but like puppets on a string, IU’s three guards made an immaculate rotation to take away any outside shot Iowa might have had.
Iowa settled for a rushed 3-pointer from junior Isaiah Moss while freshman guard Rob Phinisee closed out on him to perfection. Moss clanged it off the rim. Morgan wormed his way around Cook for a one-handed rebound, dribbled halfway down the floor and found a streaking Smith for an easy dunk that sent the crowd in Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall into a quick conniption of excitement.
It was a brief bout of beautiful defensive basketball and a good example of what any team hopes for: exquisite defense generating offense.
The Hoosiers have been on the verge of being one of the better defensive teams in the Big Ten, but if their Thursday performance showed anything, it’s that they just haven’t found a way to be that team consistently.
Yes, Iowa managed to score a whopping 46 points in the first half, but that number lies a bit.
If it weren’t for the Hawkeyes shooting 7-16 from behind the three-point line with four of those coming from freshman Joe Wieskamp, the narrative going into the locker room would have changed colossally.
IU’s defensive performance in the first half was not near as bad as it looked on paper. Moments like the one that ended with Smith’s dunk showed the Hoosiers have defensive brilliance somewhere within them. Yet all those moments were offset by lackadaisical lapses, which led to Iowa to hit open outside shots over and over again.
The Hawkeyes are one of the better outside shooting teams in the conference yet the Hoosiers still faltered when it came to taking that weapon away from the opposing offense.
At this point in the season, we know what IU’s offense is going to look like on most nights.
It’s going to revolve around Morgan and freshman Romeo Langford. The Hoosiers aren’t going to hit many shots around the perimeter. It seems like in every game this season, there’s been a prolonged scoring drought of at least five minutes.
IU is also going to struggle hitting big shots in key situations, which it showed down the stretch Thursday with a procession of missed threes late in the second half.
When the Hoosiers get their big defensive stops, they can’t seem to capitalize on them on the offensive end.
That means their defense has to be flawless for more than just sporadic 30-second intervals throughout the night.
If the Hoosiers aren't going to hit big shots of their own, they have to also take away their opponents' shots, like the 3-pointer Iowa junior Jordan Bohanan nailed to put his team up seven in the final minute of play.
IU’s outing Thursday was by no means a poor one. A five-point loss to the nation’s 20th-ranked team is not a season-killer, even if it dampened much of the momentum the Hoosiers accumulated from its win at Michigan State last week.
Yet the loss showed IU has a decision to make moving forward: Is this a team that is going to win by shutting opponents down on defense or one with a balanced attack on both ends of the floor?
We’ve seen the Hoosiers’ limitations on offense too many times to instill any confidence in the latter option.
There’s still time to turn those flashes of potential into a consistent defensive harmony.
If IU can find a way to get to that point, with it will come relevance once again.
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