There’s never a good time to be without two key starters who boast over 6,000 minutes of college basketball experience, but No. 15 Indiana could be particularly affected in a meeting with visiting Northwestern on Sunday at Bloomington.
Indiana point guard Xavier Johnson has missed the last two games, including Thursday’s 91-89 loss to Iowa, and doesn’t appear to be returning any time soon due to a foot injury. Hoosiers forward Race Thompson injured his right leg Thursday and is expected to miss multiple games.
Indiana (10-4, 1-2 Big Ten) starts a stretch of three games in seven days against Northwestern (11-3, 2-1), which is coming off an impressive 73-60 victory at home over Illinois.
The Wildcats will be the team that can lean into its experience. Their lineup features three seniors — Chase Audige, Boo Buie and Robbie Beran — who have combined for over 7,000 career minutes.
The Northwestern trio is the backbone of an intense man-to-man defense that ranks fourth nationally in field-goal percentage allowed (36.3 percent) and eighth in opponents’ scoring (57.2 points per game).
Audige, who ranks 10th nationally with 2.6 steals per game, also has emerged as Northwestern’s top offensive option with 21.6 points and 38.5-percent shooting from 3-point range over his last five games.
“Are we perfect? No,” said Northwestern coach Chris Collins. “We’re not perfect by any means. We can be ugly at times. But I tell you what: Our team has a lot of heart. They’re a really together group and they love playing with each other and for each other.”
While Northwestern has surpassed all expectations, as the regular season’s midpoint approaches, Indiana finds itself on a roller-coaster ride that’s at its lowest point.
After winning their first seven games, the Hoosiers have dropped four of their last seven as injuries and inconsistency have bogged down the preseason Big Ten favorites. Thursday’s game at Iowa served as a microcosm of the season as Indiana bolted to a 28-7 lead, surrendered the advantage, regained a six-point lead with 3:42 to play and then fell behind for good with 2:08 remaining.
The Hoosiers missed their final five shots from the field as well as three of their last eight free throws.
Thompson’s injury late in the first half loomed large. He was effective on both ends of the court in his 10 minutes of action with nine points, while holding down Iowa’s Kyle Murray, who didn’t go wild until the second half as he finished with 30 points.
“All I can do is wish Race and (Johnson) a speedy recovery and they get back,” Indiana coach Mike Woodson said. “But until they get back, other guys got to step up and play.”
While ballyhooed freshman Jalen Hood-Schifino (21 points, nine assists) has filled Johnson’s point-guard duties well, the Hoosiers need something similar from freshman Malik Reneau and junior Jordan Geronimo.
Reneau, a top-25 recruit who can be a force in the post, hit double figures in four of his first five games but has not done so in nine games since. In six minutes off the bench at Iowa, he neither took a shot nor grabbed a rebound, while committing three fouls and two turnovers.
Geronimo delivered nine points, five rebounds, three assists and two blocks in 18 minutes off the bench in his best all-around showing since a Nov. 23 blowout of Little Rock.
–Field Level Media