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Sunday, April 21
The Indiana Daily Student

sports men's basketball

COLUMN: Everything is hard for Indiana basketball. For this program, it shouldn’t be.

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A coach auto-benching one of his best players. A team representing a state full of shooters — but can’t shoot. A program in disarray. 

Indiana men’s basketball, with one of college basketball’s most illustrious histories and a wealth of resources to sustain it, continues to spiral in head coach Mike Woodson’s third season. 

The Hoosiers (14-13, 6-10 Big Ten) lost their fourth consecutive game Saturday, falling 83-74 to Penn State (14-14, 8-9 Big Ten) inside the Bryce Jordan Center. 

Woodson benched sophomore center Kel’el Ware after the 7-footer picked up his second foul with 4:51 to play in the first half. Indiana, which led 27-25 when Ware departed, found itself in a 40-33 deficit at halftime. 

Without Ware, the Hoosiers’ second-leading scorer at 15 points per game, the Nittany Lions attacked the rim at will, oft finishing layups or drawing fouls. In the final three minutes of the first half, Penn State senior guard Ace Baldwin Jr. scored 8 points alone — all on layups and free throws. 

“The game wasn’t out of hand at that particular time,” Woodson said postgame. “We just didn’t make plays coming down the home stretch of the first half to keep us right there, but that wasn’t the difference of the game.” 

Woodson’s prevalence of automatically benching players with two first-half fouls has drawn criticism throughout the season, often because it’s led to severe on-court consequences for Indiana’s caliber of play. 

But the Hoosiers’ struggles extend far beyond their coach. 

Within the first three minutes of the second half, Ware committed two more fouls, the last of which came 30 feet from the basket. Woodson opted to trust Ware, and the University of Oregon transfer responded by picking up an unnecessary foul. 

Indiana trailed by 8 points when he left, and when he returned nearly 12 minutes later, the margin was still at 8. 

Now, the Hoosiers are left pondering what could’ve been had their star big man and potential first-round NBA Draft pick not been limited to 22 minutes, his second-lowest mark this season. 

Still, Indiana has many, many more problems. 

Shooting has haunted the Hoosiers all season. They entered Saturday ranked No. 12 in the Big Ten in 3-point percentage at 32.1% and is the conference’s worst team from the foul stripe, hitting only 65.7% at the line. 

Those struggles followed Indiana to not-so-Happy Valley, where Woodson’s team shot just 2-of-15 from beyond the arc and 14-of-25 at the free throw line, including an abhorrent 5-of-13 in the second half. 

This isn’t new. This isn’t a one-off, bad day at the office. This is who the Hoosiers are. 

Saturday marked Indiana’s sixth game hitting fewer than 20% of its 3-pointers this season, and the ninth time it shot worse than 60% at the charity stripe — six of which have come in the past 11 contests. 

Under Woodson, the Hoosiers have built an identity around playing through the post. They scored 50 points inside the paint Saturday while the Nittany Lions mustered only 28. Sophomore forward Malik Reneau continued his strong season with a 27-point performance. 

But none of it matters if jump shots don’t fall. 

Indiana didn’t miss a shot during a five-minute stretch in the second half — and yet, its deficit doubled, growing from 56-51 to 70-60. 

The Hoosiers were 4-of-4 from the field, all shots coming from inside the paint, but missed six straight free throws and turned the ball over twice during the span. 

One of Indiana’s makes — a running hook shot from senior guard Trey Galloway — was at a high degree of difficulty. On the other end, Baldwin blew by senior guard Anthony Leal for an easy layup. Galloway followed by sprinting down the court, largely out of control, and giving the ball away. 

Perhaps nothing better summarizes the 2023-24 Indiana men’s basketball team than that, though its shooting woes pose a formidable foe. 

Freshman forward Mackenzie Mgbako hit Indiana’s first triple of the afternoon with 1:35 to play in the second half, trimming Penn State’s lead to 78-70. The game, for all intents and purposes, was already over. 

With two weeks left in the regular season, Indiana is still the only team in the Big Ten to have a game with no made 3-pointers, coming Jan. 27 at Illinois. This afternoon, the Hoosiers were 95 seconds away from doing it again. 

“I look at the stat sheet, look at the free throws and the missed opportunities to make threes,” Woodson said. “I thought that was the difference.” 

The Hoosiers have five banners proudly hanging in the rafters in Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall. Woodson’s stressed several times since returning to his alma mater in March of 2021 that he wants to add No. 6. 

Indiana hasn’t felt further from a title during Woodson’s tenure than it does right now. The Hoosiers have trailed by double digits in all six February games they’ve played. Woodson missed the mark with roster construction and the program is feeling the effects of it. 

With four games remaining before the Big Ten Tournament almost certainly brings an early end to Indiana’s season, Woodson is taking responsibility for his team’s struggles. It was perhaps the easiest thing he or the Hoosiers did all day.  

“I’ve struggled with this team this year,” Woodson said. “I won’t blame my players. I’ll always put it on Mike Woodson, and that’s how it should be. I’m a big boy, and we’ll try to continue to grow this thing and figure it out, but we still got a lot of work on our hands.” 

Indiana made the NCAA Tournament in each of Woodson’s first two seasons. It’ll need a miracle to do so this year. The true test, and what will ultimately decide Woodson’s tenure in Bloomington, is what happens next. But this season can be chalked up as a disappointment. 

“It’s very difficult as a team knowing we’ve got the talent and players to do it and make the tournament,” Reneau said. “But when stuff doesn’t go right, you let games slip by and it's hard to overcome. It’s just hard to fight back from that.” 

Follow reporters Will Foley (@foles24) and Matt Press (@MattPress23) and columnist Daniel Flick (@ByDanielFlick) for updates throughout the Indiana men’s basketball season. 

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