NEW YORK – When senior guard Xavier Johnson picked up his second foul with 17:49 left in the first half against the University of Connecticut, Indiana coach Mike Woodson turned to freshman guard Gabe Cupps looking for quality relief.
A minute and a half later, Cupps air-balled a midrange jumper. He failed to score in the seven and a half minutes he was on the floor. Woodson went back to Johnson after a layup from UConn senior guard Tristen Newton extended the Huskies’ lead to 16-11.
But 38 seconds later, Johnson was back on the bench with foul No. 3 freshly earned. He played only 14 total minutes, putting excess pressure on Cupps and the rest of the unit to rise to the occasion.
The result was a 20-point drubbing, as Indiana (3-1) took a 77-57 loss to No. 5 UConn (4-0) Sunday inside Madison Square Garden.
Sophomore forward Malik Reneau led the Hoosiers in scoring with 18 points, but he played only nine minutes in the second half due to foul trouble and ultimately fouled out with just over seven minutes remaining.
The officiating came under scrutiny early and often Sunday afternoon, but both sides finished with 21 fouls. These are the types of physical, foul-heavy games Indiana will encounter in Big Ten play, as the Hoosiers averaged nearly 18 fouls per game in conference contests last season.
Thus, Indiana needs production from its bench – and didn’t get it against UConn.
Sophomore guard C.J. Gunn had a season-high 7 points but went only 2-of-7 from the field and 0-of-3 from beyond the arc, putting his career average at a mere 7.1%. Senior forward Anthony Walker followed suit with 5 points, all of which came in the final five minutes when the outcome was already decided.
Cupps didn’t score in 19 minutes of action. He didn’t attempt a shot after his early air-ball. Junior forward Payton Sparks failed to attempt a shot in his eight minutes and missed both free throw attempts, finishing with more fouls (two) than rebounds, points and shot attempts combined (one). Sophomore forward Kaleb Banks played nine minutes, failing to score while going 0-of-2.
Indiana’s bench went 3-of-13 from the field, 0-of-4 from distance, three assists, four rebounds and two turnovers across 68 combined minutes against UConn.
It’s the continuation of a worrisome trend for the Hoosiers, who haven’t had a consistent scoring presence off the bench this season. Woodson remains confident in the group he’s compiled, but the results are difficult to ignore.
“All the guys that come off the bench, I trust when they come in that they can make plays and do things,” Woodson said. “But it wasn’t working for anybody in terms of how we played. I’ve got to get that fixed.”
The Hoosiers received a season-high 14 points from the bench in Thursday’s 89-80 win over Wright State University while Banks, Gunn, Walker and Sparks all found the scoring column, but the distribution didn’t travel Sunday.
Cupps hasn’t scored since Nov. 12 against Army West Point despite playing 37 minutes in the two games that have followed. When Johnson can’t play extended minutes due to circumstances like the foul trouble he had Sunday, the Hoosiers put lots on Cupps’ plate, and they’ll need more moving forward.
Woodson mentioned after the Hoosiers’ first exhibition contest against the University of Indianapolis that he wanted to see if his second unit could play at a high level.
The early returns on that front haven’t been overly promising, with Indiana averaging just 9.5 bench points per game this season. The Hoosiers have been outscored 65-38 by opposing benches thus far.
If Indiana is to reach the level it believes it’s capable of, the second unit needs to take a step forward. Woodson wanted Gunn and Banks to be key factors, but they’ve scored only 18 points combined in four games. Sparks, a transfer from Ball State University, has only 3 points to his name as a Hoosier. Walker and Cupps are averaging 3.5 and 2.5 points apiece, respectively.
Margin of defeat aside, Sunday illustrated just how paramount it is that Indiana finds bench production, and with another game coming at 4:30 p.m. Monday, it needs to find it quickly.
The Hoosiers believe they competed with the Huskies, and the deficit didn’t balloon to greater than 14 points until 5:46 to play in the second half, creating the narrative the game was closer than the final score indicates.
“They’re not 20 points better than us, and we know that,” senior guard Trey Galloway said.
Though the box score says otherwise, UConn may not be 20 points better than Indiana. But when the Hoosiers’ second unit was put into position to prove Galloway right, it couldn’t, and now it is faced with the sobering reality of the mountain it must climb to reach the country’s best teams.