Tipoff: Iowa at Indiana, 9 p.m., Tuesday
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Is this free-fall that has become Indiana basketball fixable this season?
That's the key question. Everything else is just babble.
Talent without basketball IQ and toughness is meaningless. Talent without awareness and focus gets you no where. Talent without shooting and maturity is, well, a recipe for disaster.
If you've seen the Hoosiers' the last three games against three Big Ten bottom-tier teams -- Minnesota, Penn State and Purdue -- you've seen disaster.
IU was good enough to have beaten Wisconsin and Michigan, two of the best teams in America. That wasn't an accident. The Hoosiers have that potential every game. But in this roller coaster season, they can't sustain it.
It's not looking like they can regain it.
The Hoosiers have six regular season games left to get it right and have shown few signs of doing so. They turn basketball into quantum physics when they're not turning it over. They submit under pressure and adversity.
Take Saturday's 82-64 loss at Purdue.
"The first half we fought pretty hard, and we felt like we were right there," sophomore forward Austin Etherington said. "Then they went on the run to start the second half, and we didn't take the hit. We didn't fight back like we should have, and it got to where it was."
Good shooting would cure a lot of ills. It would free up space inside for power forward Noah Vonleh, put more pressure on defenses and give the Hoosiers more time to set up their own defense.
This is not a good-shooting team. The Hoosiers shot 32.2 percent from the field against Purdue and missed at least 12 layups.
In theory, IU should have good shooters. Point guard Yogi Ferrell has made himself into one. Etherington was recruited for the role. Will Sheehey and Evan Gordon have it in their backgrounds.
Sheehey was 2-for-2 from three-point range against Purdue, and that still left him at a dismal 29.6 percent. Gordon shoots 31.3 percent beyond the arc. Etherington is at 26.7 percent.
In fact, the Hoosiers' best shooter by far is the 6-9 Vonleh, both overall (54.2 percent) and from three-point range (54.2).
On Saturday guards Stanford Robinson and Gordon were a combined 0-for-9 from the field. Think about that. The shooting guard position didn't score.
A week ago at Minnesota, Robinson, a raw but promising freshman, was 0-for-1 from the field and didn't score. He did come back with 5-for-6 shooting for 11 points against Penn State, but you can't have such inconsistency from a starter.
“Two of the last three games we have gotten zero points out of the (shooting guard) spot -- zero points,” IU coach Tom Crean said.
Let's add it up. IU has lost four of its last five and six of its last eight to fall to 14-11 overall and 4-8 in the Big Ten. It is last in the Big Ten -- by a ton -- in turnovers, turnover margin and assist-to-turnover ratio. It's also last in three-point baskets.
The Hoosiers' confidence seems shaken and stirred, a consequence of blowing double-digit leads (see Nebraska, Minnesota and Penn State), getting hammered by your biggest rival and enduring the indefinite suspension of forward Hanner Mosquera-Perea for an alcohol-related arrest.
That's a lot of baggage for a young team.
“I feel like it's mostly mental, especially when teams make that runs and guys kind of get quiet on the court,” Ferrell said. “Those are times when you've got to come together at your greatest moment (of need).”
While Crean said he's “not big on bringing in a team of sports psychologists,” he's obviously thought about it.
“You get your strength from your teammates,” he said. “You've got to shut out the negatives and the doubts as much as you can, and you can't let them creep in as the game is going on. We have to get more strength and confidence from teammates on the floor.
“You have to keep working through it and building that competitive spirit. Some have it more than others, but you have to have a togetherness of spirit more than anything else. That togetherness is what they have to have on the floor with one another.”
Togetherness would come in handy on Tuesday, when IU hosts No. 16 Iowa. The Hoosiers have beaten the last two ranked teams to come to Assembly Hall. Crean can point to that rather than worry if the season is spiraling out of control.
“I'm concerned about how we're going to practice to get ready for Iowa," he said. "I don't think like that. … I don't ever think like that. That's not how I'm built, that's not how I'm going to coach the team. That's what we have to work through. If I thought there was anybody who was in that situation where they weren't going as hard or weren't as locked in, then you'd see them play a lot less.”
By the time Crean faced the media after Saturday's loss, he'd already studied Iowa's win at Penn State early that day.
“I've dealt with doubts most of my life, maybe not all of it, but most of it and I am pretty good at dealing with it. I am pretty good at spotting when other people have them and I don't tolerate it. I am just concerned that we're really ready to play Iowa. And I'm really concerned that they had 40 free throws (at Penn State).”
And so we're back to the big question -- is this fixable? Only IU's performance can answer that.