For the past eight weeks, Archie Miller marched into his locker room and saw the result and ramification of defeat. He watched his team feel sorry for themselves after endless close losses, including a five-game home losing skid that was snapped Tuesday against Wisconsin.
Even after defeating No. 19 Wisconsin, though, the Hoosiers’ so-called resurgence was not legitimatized. Maybe it was the ugliness of a double-overtime, three-hour slugest of a 9pm game, or allowing a 20-3 second half run to the Badgers.
Whatever it was, Indiana’s players seemed relieved after defeating No. 19 Wisconsin earlier this week — but not yet joyful. The joy came on Saturday, as Miller’s team completed a season-sweep of No. 6 Michigan State, 63-62 at Assembly Hall. Students stormed the court and its celebration was heard as Justin Smith, Devonte Green, and Rob Phinisee answered postgame questions.
For a team that started with the expectation of a deep NCAA tournament run but eventually lost 12 of 13 midseason games, Saturday felt good. There was joy.
“It’s definitely given us momentum,” Smith said. “We had won — we were 1 for 12 or something like that, but we really weren’t focused on that, we were taking it one game at a time, and now that we got two in a row, it’s next game up. We’re looking to build off of it, and it feels good to win. It always feels good to win, and we’re just going to continue and we want this feeling again. That’s what we’re going to strive for.”
There is no joy for Indiana (15-14, 6-12 Big Ten) without a career-day from sophomore forward Justin Smith. His career-high 24 points were season-saving, especially in the first half when the rest of the Hoosiers struggled to do anything right offensively. Saturday was a day for the unexpected: not simply Smith’s performance, but 11 second-half points from Devonte Green. Both players had slid down Miller’s bench at varying points during the season.
“I mean, I was due to hit some shots,” Smith said. “I hadn’t hit a couple in a while, and then once I got a couple going, my teammates kept giving me confidence, told me keep shooting it, and that’s what I did, and I was able to make a couple.”
The Hoosiers also do not win without their impressive play on both ends of the fast-break, and stifling defense from freshman point guard Rob Phinisee — who held Michigan State point guard Cassius Winston scoreless at the buzzer. There were endless effort plays that Indiana had not made in months, including 15 offensive rebounds against an elite rebounding team in the Spartans. Those effort plays have now resurrected IU’s season.
“The only thing that has given us confidence all year in our big wins is how hard we’ve played,” Miller said … “I think it’s great attitude by the guys. I think it’s great commitment level, and they sort of are just dialed in a little bit more so. They’ve gotten away from the worrying and feeling sorry for themselves, and they’ve gotten back to work, and it’s good to see.”
Indiana has now defeated back-to-back ranked opponents for the first time since the 2016 Big Ten Championship team — but this resume is nothing like that one. The Hoosiers hold six quadrant-one victories, and five ranked victories despite the nation’s third-toughest Strength of Schedule. Only 13 schools have more Quad 1 victories than Indiana, and a seventh Quad 1 victory would come if Butler improves. These are all facts, but so are these: the Hoosiers are a mediocre 15-14 overall, an ugly 6-12 in the Big Ten, and lost 12 of 13 games earlier this season. Michigan State aside, Indiana’s important wins have all come at home.
Obviously, it is a mystifying resume. It is a resume that will garner an insufferable amount of conversation during the next few weeks. To Indiana’s credit, a conversation alone is impressive after that 46-point showing against Michigan, or 21-point loss to Minnesota. The Hoosiers could have folded. They have not. Victories against Illinois and Rutgers would close Indiana’s regular season at 17-14 (8-12), in which Indiana would play in the Big Ten’s 8 vs. 9 second-round game. Any wins in the Big Ten tournament would push the Hoosiers even closer to 20 wins — and given the strength of the conference and weakness of the field, that should be enough.
“I think our resume at the end of the day will speak for itself,” Miller said. “But we have a unique resume. Our schedule strength is off the charts. We have some big wins against really, really highly regarded teams, and if you take the name off the front, obviously you’re going to look at a stretch in the season that doesn’t look very good, but it’s all about how you finish. You can keep controlling what you can control right now, which is being ready for the next one. But we have to win. I mean, we have to win, period.”
Right now, Indiana feels confident. They should be — there is nothing scarier than a team that gets hot in March. Except for these Hoosiers, it is confidence rather than heat. Miller has acknowledged that his team will never be the nation’s top offense, but effort and energy change this team’s ceiling regardless. Miller also warned of Thursday’s road matchup with Illinois. The Illini, to their own right, play exceptionally hard. A letdown in Champaign could end Indiana’s at-large chances. But for one day, anyway, it feels good.
“It feels good,” Miller said. “I mean, it honestly does. It feels good to watch the guys right now just in terms of their mindset, their disposition and how they’re doing things, and you’ve got to play tough, and you’ve got to play really hard, and you’ve got to make some things happen for yourself, and we did that today.”