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To the naked eye, Indianaâ€™s Wednesdayâ€™s contest with the North Carolina Central Eagles seemed the perfect opportunity for the Hoosiers to right the ship and resume playing the brand of basketball that propelled them into the national spotlight earlier in the season. The Hoosiers built their initial head of steam by obliterating a series of cupcake opponents before turning heads around the country with their play against the likes of Kentucky, Ohio State and Michigan, so it seemed natural that a mid-season sacrificial lamb would be just the thing to break IU out of what has become an up-and-down season.
While North Carolina Central was no match for the more explosive Hoosiers, they didnâ€™t seem to get the memo that it was their job to get this Indiana team firing on all cylinders once again. Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo continued their strong play, Derek Elston rediscovered his perimeter jumper, Will Sheehey played his best game since returning from an ankle injury that sidelined him over winter break and Kory Barnett (affectionately referred to as the human victory cigar) got a chance to play.
Thatâ€™s about it for the positives.
I hate to be â€˜rain-on-the-parade guyâ€™, but there was plenty to be concerned about in the Hoosiersâ€™ win. Most of that concern centers on the play of two guys that IU counts on to contribute on the offensive end â€“ Jordan Hulls and Christian Watford. For various reasons, the duoâ€™s effectiveness has wavered recently, which has played a major role in Indianaâ€™s offensive struggles.
Over the course of the past three games, Watford has scored once in double figures while Hulls canâ€™t boast having done even that. Making matters worse, the barriers preventing them from being impactful players on the offensive end are the same hang-ups that have reared their heads in the past, including earlier this season.
First, a look at Watford, who has totaled 15 points over his last three games, with 12 of those points coming on 4-11 shooting against Northwestern. Shooting worse than 40% from the floor generally wouldnâ€™t qualify as a bright spot, but with Watford scoring three points on 0-13 shooting over the past two games (0-9 against NCCU with his only points coming on a pair of free throws), his output against Northwestern has been a high-water mark.
Watford has done a decent job staying involved defensively â€“ Tom Crean singled him out after the game for setting an example of how to play when shots arenâ€™t falling â€“ but Watfordâ€™s main role has been as a scorer for a reason. Heâ€™s a player with an accurate three-point shot and a strong mid-range game, and for him to struggle like he has on the offensive end is both troubling and detrimental to both the short and long-term prospects of this team. Watford has been mired in an offensive slump since IU played Michigan on January 5th, and with the exception of an 18-point outburst against Illinois, hasnâ€™t had a single memorable offensive game. When Watford has it going, heâ€™s probably the second most effective scorer on the team. He hasnâ€™t been that guy for a while now, and if he doesnâ€™t come around soon, Indiana will struggle down the stretch.
Equally troubling for the Hoosiers has been the play of Jordan Hulls, IUâ€™s designated sharpshooter. Hullsâ€™ role is different from Watfordâ€™s, so itâ€™s fine that he hasnâ€™t been scoring 15-20 points any given night, but his painfully apparent timidity has resurfaced recently and hurt both his play and Indianaâ€™s offensive flow. Over the past three games, Hulls is only one-for-five from beyond the arc, which indicates a pair of problems.
First off, while itâ€™s obvious that Hulls isnâ€™t shooting with his normal accuracy (he averages 48% from the perimeter) itâ€™s unclear whether thatâ€™s a result of increased defensive attention or Hullsâ€™ personal struggles. Â More troubling is the fact that heâ€™s taken fewer than two threes per game over the past three contests â€“ something that should never happen for one of the best marksmen in the B1G.
Indianaâ€™s offense isnâ€™t geared around Hulls but his lack of assertiveness has been troubling nonetheless. Despite his best efforts, heâ€™s not quick enough to be an above-average perimeter defender and his 9:7 assist/turnover ratio highlights the trouble heâ€™s had as a pure point guard as well. He needs to be hitting shots to be effective and he hasnâ€™t done that recently. Unless Hulls finds his confidence, itâ€™s hard to argue that he deserves to be on the floor for 30 minutes per night.
***For those wondering why I didnâ€™t write on Verdell Jones, he simply hasnâ€™t been enough of a factor this season. More was expected of Watford and Hulls than Verdell. Thereâ€™s a reason Jones has been relegated to the bench and no one has raised a voice in protest. Tom Crean has options (Sheehey, Oladipo, Abell) to replace/supplement Jonesâ€™ production. Iâ€™m not sure he has that option with either Hulls or Watford. ***Â
Victor Oladipo has been outstanding since the Purdue game â€“ averaging 17 points per game in that five-game span â€“ and Cody Zeller has been his standard (read: phenomenal) self, but their production hasnâ€™t been the issue (see: Iowa last Sunday). If they donâ€™t get more consistent help, IU may struggle to beat Purdue, let alone make a tournament run.
Watford and Hulls are experienced, skilled and respected on this team. They have the full support of both their teammates and the coaching staff and if they play the way theyâ€™re capable of, the Hoosiers could receive a much-needed boost. Given the way they played against North Carolina Central though, thereâ€™s cause for concern. Indianaâ€™s road only gets harder, and both Watford and Hulls both failed to take advantage of a prime opportunity to break out of their respective slumps.
The clock begins ticking for the pair today in Minneapolis, and the roadâ€™s not getting any easier.