Since the beginning of his first season, Indiana head coach Archie Miller has stressed the importance of guard play. Which makes sense, given Miller’s collegiate career as a guard at NC State.
Collectively this season, Indiana’s guards have been remarkably inconsistent. In particular games, though, they have excelled. And when Indiana’s guards excel, the Hoosiers are always competitive — and generally victorious.
For Indiana (16-12, 9-7 B1G) that was the case in Saturday afternoon’s thrilling 84-82 win at Iowa (12-17, 3-13). Robert Johnson, playing his last games in an IU uniform, scored a career-high 29 points on an unconscious nine 3-pointers — tying the school record. Devonte Green, after a quiet game against Illinois, rattled off 18 much-needed points on an efficient 7-of-10 shooting from the floor.
“I’m biased,” Miller said postgame. “I’m a guard. But guards win, man.”
Saturday was certainly not Juwan Morgan’s most explosive game (12 points, 5-of-9) — but it was an example of the Hoosiers winning without their best player at his best. Given Indiana’s newfound chances of postseason play, that characteristic will surely benefit down the stretch.
“I didn’t realize he made nine threes,” Miller said of Johnson. “I realize that he made some, but I wasn’t up to speed on exactly how many. I’ve been waiting for him to step up and have one of these nights. You have to give his teammates credit.. We had 23 assists and only 10 turnovers and probably most of the turnovers happened in the last seven minutes.”
It should not be forgotten the importance of Freddie McSwain in the late stages of Saturday’s thrilling road game against Iowa. Hawkeye sophomore Tyler Cook bullied the Hoosiers to the tune of 28 points and 10 rebounds — but it was McSwain that put an end to Cook’s late-game heroics. The 6-foot-6 senior also finished a beautiful feed from Green to put the Hoosiers up 84-82 with 48 seconds remaining.
“I think the big thing about Freddy is he’s giving us consistent effort,” Miller said. “He’s another guy that can rebound. We got manhandled on the glass, especially in the second half. He was able to help us defensively. Being able to get a little bit of space, he got a nice little break when Devonte made a heck of a pass to him on the roll late in the game.”
After such a tumultuous, confusing middle stretch of the season, the Hoosiers are now playing their best basketball of the season. Four straight wins have suddenly thrusted Indiana into postseason pictures — whether that’s a potential No. 6 seed in the Big Ten tournament, or invitations to the NCAA or NIT postseason.
The Hoosiers have a daunting final two games, which begins at Nebraska (20-11, 11-4) on Tuesday and culminates at home against No. 8 Ohio State (22-6, 13-2) next Friday. Indiana will likely not be favored in either, albeit possibly against a Buckeye team fuming from a 23-point loss to Penn State.
It goes without saying, if Archie Miller’s Hoosiers want to earn an at-large bid in this year’s NCAA tournament — they’ll need wins in both. From there, Indiana would be 18-12 (11-7) and likely still need three wins, at least, for an appearance in the Big Ten Championship Game. Remember, the Big Ten is at its weakest in recent memory.
Regardless of its postseason chances, it is remarkable to see the Hoosiers surge at the finish. Given lousy losses to Indiana State and Fort Wayne early in the season, a first-year head coach, and season-ending injury to a vital post presence — Indiana is still hanging around. And most importantly, its players are maturing in multiple capacities.
“Even through ups and downs,” Miller said. “I think they’ve seen improvement in each other. Winning becomes contagious. It’s hard to do, it’s hard to get wins like this, and I’m happy for them.”