-- Was it really just 43 short days ago that my colleague Jeff Goodman ranked Indiana as the No. 1 team in the nation in our weekly Power Rankings? The Hoosiers were coming off their 103-99 overtime win over Kansas in Hawaii, and coach Tom Crean's guys were riding high.
Since that win against the Jayhawks, however, IU has gone just 1-3 against major-conference opponents. Indiana suffered neutral-floor losses to Butler and Louisville and, most shockingly, fell to Nebraska 87-83 in Bloomington. The loss to the Cornhuskers was the Hoosiers' first defeat at home since March 2015. Throw in IU's 71-68 overtime road loss at Fort Wayne, and you're looking at a team that at 10-4 is in danger of falling out of the AP top 25 entirely.
What happened? In part, of course, that question can be answered with a quick glance at the schedule. Any team that plays Kansas, North Carolina, Butler, Nebraska and Louisville is likely to come away from the ordeal with multiple losses.
Still, that schedule was a known quantity before the start of the season, and it's fair to say a 2-3 record against major-conference competition qualifies as underachieving. Using those five games and their 368 possessions as a guide, then, here's what appears to be ailing Indiana right now:
The Hoosiers' shots aren't falling like they used to
On paper, IU's shooting is outstanding. For the season, Indiana is connecting on 39 percent of its 3s and a whopping 57 percent of its 2s, giving Crean's offense one of the best effective field goal percentages in Division I.
Sounds great, but alas, those figures are based almost entirely on eight nonconference home wins against the likes of UMass Lowell, Liberty, Mississippi Valley State and SIU Edwardsville. Conversely, in the five games the Hoosiers have played against major-conference foes, the Hoosiers have hit just 45 percent of their 2s.
If you're talking about 2s and Indiana, you're talking about Thomas Bryant. The sophomore was universally tapped for a breakout campaign in the preseason and, to his credit, he accounts for a larger portion of IU's offense when the Hoosiers are facing quality opponents. But Bryant's 51 percent rate of success inside the arc against major-conference defenses, while of course quite good, is nowhere near what he was able to accomplish as a freshman (64 percent, per KenPom.com) carrying a similar work load against that same level of competition.
Again, when Indiana plays capable opponents, Bryant is doing better inside the arc than the team as a whole. His dip, relative to last season, does affect IU's bottom line, but Josh Newkirk (a transfer from Pittsburgh) and freshman De'Ron Davis in particular have really struggled to convert 2-point tries against quality competition. It's also worth noting that OG Anunoby records fewer attempts in such games, despite showing a high rate of success on those tries. The net result of all the above has been a drop in accuracy against teams of the Hoosiers' caliber.
Then again, IU is swimming against a tide of its own making, one that would dilute even the best shooting.
Indiana's turnover margin makes this team "Inverse West Virginia"
One of the most peculiar on-again, off-again aspects of the Crean-era Hoosiers has been a curiously elevated turnover rate, one that you just don't associate with uncommonly accurate guard-oriented offenses. In a sense, that phenomenon is back again this season, but the real news here may be that figure's relation to what opponents are doing.
In the five games IU has played against prime competition, this offense has given the ball away on 22 percent of its possessions. While that is indeed really bad, the devastating part of this is that those same opponents have committed turnovers just 14 percent of the time. Unless you have a dominant shot-blocker in the paint, this 8 percentage point gap is very, very difficult to overcome with sheer accuracy.
Consider IU's situation in comparison to what West Virginia is doing. The Mountaineers don't have a scorer who makes opponents adjust their defensive game plan, but what coach Bob Huggins' team does have is a marked tendency to get more chances to score. West Virginia famously forces turnovers while also taking care of the ball. The result is a rather incredible turnover margin in favor of the Mountaineers.
Not that Indiana or any other team should necessarily start pressing full-court on every possession. It's just that a 14 percent opponent turnover rate is close to the point at which you're asking too much of your offense. You don't have to press, deflect passes or record steals. Take an occasional charge. Force a travel. Basically achieve a normal opponent TO rate however you can.
Now the good news for IU fans
At the end of the day, this team still beat Kansas and North Carolina. Indiana has been little short of sensational on the glass, even against the formidable likes of KU, UNC and Louisville. Versus their five toughest opponents, the Hoosiers have pulled down 42 percent of their own misses while also controlling the defensive glass. In fact, when Bryant, Anunoby and sophomore Juwan Morgan are all on the floor at the same time, opponents may as well wave a white flag on the boards.
Lastly, though coaches may be hesitant to say it in so many words, luck does play a part in basketball outcomes. Butler, Nebraska and Louisville combined to hit 47 percent of their 3s against IU. Doubtless the Hoosiers can improve their pressure, closeouts, rotations and such on the perimeter. By the same token, it is equally doubtless that opposing teams will not continue to make 47 percent of their 3s.
Indiana was expected to compete for the Big Ten title in 2016-17, and with 94 percent of the conference season yet to be played, that is still a realistic objective. A markedly less damaging turnover margin and some additional makes in the paint should do wonders for IU's chances.