In September, Indiana embraced the preseason expectations. Senior forward Juwan Morgan guaranteed an NCAA Tournament appearance. Freshman guard Romeo Langford declared the National Championship as his goal.
On Wednesday, in a resounding 96-73 victory against No. 24 Marquette, Indiana confirmed the preseason expectations.
“I think in a way it kind of puts us on the map a little bit,” Evan Fitzner said. “I think we all as a group have a lot of confidence in what we can do. But I think that we kind of showed everyone what we’re capable of tonight, so I think that was the significance of it.”
The Hoosiers were in control from start to finish. The first of four Evan Fitzner’s 3-pointers handed Indiana the 19-4 lead and forced Marquette to burn a pair of timeouts in the game’s opening five minutes. Despite a quick Marquette run near halftime, the Hoosiers led 47-34 at the break. In the first half, IU’s young backcourt of true freshman Rob Phinisee and sophomore Al Durham frustrated Marquette All-American Markus Howard to the tune of seven points on 3-of-9 shooting from the floor.
“It was unbelievable to see,” Fitzner said of Phinisee. “He’s a really tough guy. For a freshman to do something like that, draw one of the better players in the country, and for the most part do a really good job on him, it was pretty impressive. I haven’t really seen a freshman do something like that, so kudos to him.”
The Hoosiers only expanded their lead in the second half through a balanced scoring attack and advantages capitalized in the fastbreak department. Romeo Langford finished with a game-high 22 points on an intelligent and efficient 8-of-15 shooting from the floor. Phinisee was equally as sound, scoring 12 points along with eight assists to only one turnover. Durham, too. The sophomore, whose minutes are expanded due to Devonte Green’s injury, filled the box score with 13 points, five assists, and four rebounds.
“He’s a stud. I mean, he’s a stud,” Miller said of Phinisee. “There’s not much to say. I mean, 26 minutes, 12 points, 8 assists, 1 turnover, and he guarded arguably maybe the Player of the Year in the Big East for most of the game and held his own.
Wednesday was a complete performance for this Indiana team, on the biggest stage the Hoosiers will play until a late November meeting at Duke. The Hoosiers were prepared, unselfish, and unanimously impressive. This was expected when Morgan decided to return for his senior season and Langford committed last spring. But it was not yet reality. Wednesday’s effort made it so, behind a second-year head coach in Miller that is pulling the right strings despite missing four players on his roster. The Hoosiers started a pair of freshmen in Langford and Phinisee, and a sophomore in Durham while senior Zach McRoberts was sidelined to injury.
“It’s really difficult to explain,” Miller said of IU’s youth. “You’re starting two freshmen and a sophomore, and you’re bringing a fourth player in who is a freshman. To say the least, I couldn’t be prouder of them. Not that they’re perfect, but guys are ready to go, and that’s an encouraging sign. If we can ever get a little bit healthy, we don’t have to play them as many minutes.”
Indiana showcased a brand of basketball that it hopes to replicate throughout the season. The Hoosiers outscored the Golden Eagles 21-5 on fastbreak points. Assists were made on 33 percent of IU’s baskets, and Indiana shot 63.6 percent from the floor — a record in Miller’s IU tenure. This was the first of Indiana’s expected resurgence in 2018-19. The preseason expectations of the Hoosiers were not met in Wednesday’s 23-point victory against a solid Big East opponent. But it certainly confirmed the realistic nature of Morgan’s promise of an NCAA Tournament appearance and Langford’s goal for a sixth banner.
First, Indiana could use good news on the health front. Miller announced postgame that McRoberts, Green, and freshmen Jerome Hunter and Race Thompson are “out indefinitely” and he does not see them playing in the near future. As Miller said, November will be a risky month for these Hoosiers. A tricky trip to Arkansas awaits this weekend before returning to Bloomington for a pair of warmup games before Duke and the Big Ten season’s start. IU, however, has passed its first test amidst early adversity.
“I look at guys being out, you get sick to your stomach for the players,” Miller said. “You get sick to your stomach for the staff because you know you want to practice and do all the right things. But at the end of the day, the one silver lining is, you start to get rhythm, you get confidence, you get players in there. So it’s a positive too. It’s a positive for the guys that are available. Obviously it’s frustrating, but it’s something I thought tonight no one blinked.”