When it stepped away from familiarity, away from the only baskets, courts and homes they’ve known for months, IU men’s basketball faltered against Wisconsin. When the crowds flipped from supportive to hostile, the Hoosiers put forth their worst game of the season.
“We didn’t have a whole lot of resistance,” IU head coach Archie Miller said after Saturday’s loss. “Our team did not play well on either end of the floor. Sometimes that happens to groups early in the season. You’re on the road, especially in a conference environment against a conference team.”
With just over 72 hours to move on and 943 miles of travel from Madison, Wisconsin to Madison Square Garden, IU will take the floor at a historic venue with one focus: to bounce back.
After IU (8-1 overall, 0-1 in the Big Ten) lost by 20 in the Big Ten opener, allowing a Wisconsin team which struggles to score to do exactly that, it will return to nonconference play facing the University of Connecticut (6-2) at 9 p.m. on Tuesday.
“This feeling that’s in us right now, it’s not going to go away until you work itself out,” Miller said. “You’ve got to earn that right. We’re going to try real hard to do that, as we take the floor on Tuesday.”
Miller has talked often about his team’s inexperience. It has had two freshmen in the starting lineup in every game. It didn’t have its sophomore point guard Rob Phinisee, a player IU relied on in road games even as a freshman. Junior guard and captain Al Durham led the team with 17 points, but Miller didn’t see his older players communicate and lead on the court.
He wants to see them talk more, to have leadership the team lacked at the Kohl Center in Madison shine through on a neutral floor. It’s why the defense struggled, failing to get off screens and put pressure on Wisconsin’s offense. Open looks for shots led to Wisconsin scoring only 52 of its 84 points outside the paint.
Despite then being among the top five teams nationally in rebounding margin, IU was out-rebounded by a smaller Wisconsin team. IU’s top 10 scoring offense dropped to 15th. Though it did receive 13 votes in the AP poll, the impressive win over Florida State University is still carrying weight in the minds of voters despite the 180 turn in Madison.
Madison Square Garden, though cavernous and laden with history, won’t have the hostility of a Big Ten road crowd. UConn (51) is ranked just behind Wisconsin (48) in the KenPom rankings. The Huskies are 65th in adjusted offense and 46th in adjusted defense per KenPom.
UConn beat a then-No. 15 ranked University of Florida team. It also beat an ACC opponent in the University of Miami and a State University of New York at Buffalo team that recently knocked off undefeated DePaul University. Senior guard Christian Vital is the Huskies' leading scorer, and freshman guard James Bouknight, once an IU target, has impressed when he’s been available. Bouknight missed time with a suspension but did score 19 points against Xavier University.
IU’s trip to New York City is a chance to put everything that went wrong at Wisconsin behind it. A win over UConn allows IU to not just add a quality victory to a resume in its early stages, but prove further what type of team IU truly is.
In its two games against major conference opponents, IU showed its best and its worst. What was thought to have been shown about the team in a home drubbing of Florida State was refuted in Wisconsin. UConn won’t answer the questions IU has in terms of how good this team really is.
But if it prevents a poor performance in Wisconsin to stray into New York, an inexperienced IU team can give more clarity to what type of group it truly is.
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