Though certainly not the most rhythmic of games, Indiana outlasted Illinois, 78-68 at Assembly Hall. Wednesday night was, in essence, a mirror of the Hoosiers’ stunning loss in Champaign on January 24th.
And yet again, the Hoosiers committed 18 turnovers against the Illini — displaying similar problems against Illinois’ disruptive pressure on defense. 47 combined fouls and 59 free-throws separated Indiana and Illinois from a relatively merciful conclusion, but improved free-throw shooting and depth carried the Hoosiers to victory.
“Their style, you don’t see it very often,” Archie Miller said. “It’s a very disruptive half-court, man-to-man. When you can’t make a pass, you’ve got to have guys that can make some plays … Both games kind of played out the same way, except I thought we were better on the glass tonight and made our free throws.”
In the words of Miller postgame, the Hoosiers will take it. Wednesday night’s win improves Indiana’s record to 15-12 overall, and 8-7 in Big Ten play. At the very worst, the Hoosiers have guaranteed a Thursday game in the 2018 Big Ten Tournament — and a .500 record for Miller’s first campaign in Bloomington. A Penn State loss on Thursday would push the Hoosiers into sixth place.
Miller is starting to see something different about his inherited Indiana players. Months after challenging his team’s toughness following embarrassing losses to Indiana State and Fort Wayne, confidence and intelligence have ensued across the board. Miller said postgame that he believes this is the best Indiana has been playing all season.
“I just think in general we’re more confident,” Miller said. “Guys understand right now what we’re asking them to do in terms of the passing, the reads, the looks that guys are getting.”
On a night where offensive outbursts were quite simply hard to come by, Miller’s bench stepped up. Five players finished in double-figures scoring, the most unlikely players coming from freshmen Al Durham (14 points) and Justin Smith (13 points). Durham’s 14 points were the most in a Big Ten game this season, while Smith’s output was his most since that infamous 20-point performance on January 6th against Minnesota.
Junior forward Juwan Morgan was his usual self, the glue that quite literally buoys the Hoosiers through dry spells and mental lapses. Morgan finished with 14 points and ten rebounds, including five blocks and four steals. But the most promising performance of Indiana’s ugly win came from senior point guard Josh Newkirk. Responding to a newfound rotation that has favored sophomore Devonte Green, Newkirk delivered a nifty drive to the basket to put Indiana up, 69-60 with 3:23 remaining. He finished with 11 points on an efficient 4-of-6 shooting.
“It’s good,” Newkirk said of the depth. “Everybody contributed. Coming off the bench, people giving us spark. So I mean it’s fun to see everybody score, everybody contribute.”
Three regular season games remain, and the ceiling for this Indiana team remains to be seen. In a weak and clouded Big Ten, anything is possible. Should the Hoosiers win out, hypothetically including a pair of impressive wins at Nebraska and home against first-place Ohio State, the Big Ten Tournament would become significantly more interesting.
Hypothetically, Indiana would then be an 18-12 (11-7 Big Ten) team — with ugly losses and a disrespected conference on its blemished resume. But lots can, and will happen before then. Indiana has a road test against a poor Iowa (3-12) side on Saturday afternoon, and that’s all Josh Newkirk is focused on as he plays the final three regular season games of his career.
“We take it one game at a time,” Newkirk said. “We’re focused on Iowa.”