BLOOMINGTON — You have heard the expression death by a thousand cuts.
Well, the Indiana men’s basketball team’s demise Tuesday night could be characterized as death by a thousand clanks.
That would be the sound of missed shots hitting off the rim because that’s what most of them did against Wisconsin in what could have been a signature victory but was more of a broad brush picture of what’s wrong with IU.
In a Big Ten game at Assembly Hall that many times the Hoosiers led and several times appeared to gain control of, the Badgers eked out a 74-69 win, making twice this season nationally ranked Wisconsin escaped with a close-call decision over IU.
So many times, Indiana was so close to breaking open a must-have game and instead ended up with a four-game losing streak that is jeopardizing the prospect of reaching the NCAA tournament in Mike Woodson’s first season as coach.
While Trayce Jackson-Davis was unstoppable in the low post, collecting 30 points and eight rebounds, Wisconsin’s Johnny Davis, perhaps the top player in the league, also scored 30 points with 12 rebounds and single-handedly took over down the stretch. Davis repeatedly drove to the basket and got fouled as IU scrambled to cling to a 69-66 lead.
Couldn’t do it, all the more frustrating because the Hoosiers previously gave away a road contest to the Badgers on Dec. 8 by a 64-59 margin when they had them all but pinned to the mat.
Couldn’t do it because IU couldn’t hit the outside shot. Had the chances, missed the basket. Woodson suggested post-game perhaps the smarter move would have been for his other guys to give the ball to their dominating teammate and get out of the way, but Jackson-Davis kept passing the ball back out to the perimeter for the misses.
Woodson said, “I was trying to go to him.” When you have a powerful horse, you ride him.
“We had shots. We just didn’t make them. We’re still a work in progress,” the coach said.
In this first campaign under Woodson, the Hoosiers are working, but it’s not certain they are currently progressing.
They’re running out of time to become a finished product. IU has five regular-season games left until the Big Ten tournament, and while Woodson said his outside shooters, such as Xavier Johnson, Trey Galloway, Miller Kopp and Parker Stewart, seem to lack confidence, he put the blame on himself for not giving them the necessary confidence boost.
Maybe, maybe not. IU shot 5-of-18 from the three-point zone. But the Hoosiers also provided Wisconsin with 29 foul shooting opportunities.
Indiana staked its season on playing exceptional defense. Woodson demanded it, and the players have delivered on that front. They have allowed the fewest points of any team in the Big Ten, and even the losses have not been offensive runaways.
Playing such stingy D creates opportunities, but the bottom line is always outscoring foes, and this was just another case of superior defense setting the table but inconsistent offense (outside of Jackson-Davis) causing irreparable harm.
The 6-foot-9 Jackson-Davis is the main map, and he glides more than overpowers, employing quickness to spin around the big guys trying to cover him. However, in a season advertised as one in which he would work on his outside shot to make himself more game-ready for the NBA, his effective range has essentially been two feet.
The weight is on other guys to nail the perimeter shots, and he had no explanation for why they didn’t drop.
“What I see is a bunch of guys working really hard on their shots all the time,” Jackson-Davis said. “They’re in the gym working. They’ll start falling. We kind of panicked a little bit.”
Wisconsin did not reach 20-5 and 16th in the national rankings by being a pushover. The Badgers are a solid, stable team. Yet, they were twice vulnerable to the Hoosiers. The difference both times is that Wisconsin played 40 minutes of hoops and IU couldn’t survive with 35 good minutes.
Woodson said at times, Indiana played great, “but we couldn’t sustain it.”
That’s the task now for those five remaining games.