It was anything but clean. But then again, what has been so far for Indiana in 2020? IU-Penn State was exactly what we all expected from a couple teams scrapping for their first conference win — ugly at times, but a physical night in the Big Ten nonetheless, which took overtime to reach a final outcome.
With 13 seconds left in overtime, Rob Phinisee played hero, hitting a turnaround jumper to seal the deal for IU as Archie Miller’s team avoided a scary 0-3 start in conference play. But Wednesday night went beyond Phinisee just stepping up when he was supposed to. Here’s what stands out the most:
A Massive Mental Boost
Everyone hates talking about moral victories, but let’s do it anyway. Barely — just barely — Indiana rose above its own demons to secure its first conference win. It’s clearly a massive boost for the psyche of a team that often seems to have a tougher time battling itself than its actual opponent. For all that’s been said about this group being Archie Miller’s deepest and most talented, at times it seems to be a mental game more than anything else.
The scoring droughts. The sudden drop-offs in energy, which often snowball into greater swings of momentum. The arrant and entirely avoidable turnovers. The kind of moments that make you ask yourself if this is the same team you were watching on your television screen 10 minutes earlier.
But at least for a long enough time on Wednesday, it felt different. For the first time all year, Al Durham’s shot didn’t look rushed or worried, as he reached a new career high of four made 3-pointers. Rob Phinisee rose to the occasion too, with 11 points of his own.
The criticism of Indiana’s veteran guards has been well documented. For one night, that monkey is off the back. For one night, IU was able to weather that storm. Blame it on the quality of the opponent, or blame it on luck.
Either way, it’s hard to fathom what the rest of the season could look like if Indiana were to fall to 0-3 in the Big Ten. But IU has avoided that frightening thought. Most importantly, it’s a confidence boost going forward. In a year where the Big Ten is as deep and talented as ever, the Hoosiers at least know they can hang around — for now.
Another Lesson in Defense
It’s been Indiana’s calling card through the first month of the season, and on Wednesday, for better and worse, its importance became that much more visible.
From the onset, Penn State didn’t present any particular defensive challenges. But instead of rising above and dominating, it almost felt as if Indiana’s defense sank to that same level.
And Penn State capitalized. Myreon Jones and Sam Sessoms kept Indiana fans on edge all night, combining for seven massive 3-pointers and 37 of Penn State’s 85 points. Meanwhile, Indiana’s rebounding struggles continue against teams with quality perimeter shooting, as Penn State won that battle, 34-26. Simply put, Indiana’s failure to contain both Jones and Sessoms was a major reason why overtime was necessary at all.
— Penn State On BTN (@PennStateOnBTN) December 31, 2020
“Defensively our team has taken a step back right now,” Miller said. “Teams like this that put that type of shooting on the floor, it creates a lot of matchup problems.”
At the same time, during Indiana’s most locked-in moments, the energy generated by great defense was also apparent.
Indiana basketball in 2020 is most successful in transition with a sense of fluidity and rhythm, allowing defense to create the success on the other end of the floor. On a night when Phinisee once and for all came alive, for the first time in a long time, his potential in that very department could finally be seen again.
“When Rob is engaged, he’s as good of an on-ball defender as you’re going to play against,” Miller said. “Rob is the pulse of our team in our way. When he’s not himself, that hurts us. A big key to our season is how he plays.”
‘Our team needs more guys to step up’
Miller said it again Wednesday night, and it’s perhaps the most evergreen storyline surrounding Indiana through one month of the season.
What’s more clear than ever is that Trayce Jackson-Davis simply cannot do it alone. Five Hoosiers reached double figures, and Indiana still barely found a way to beat a lowly Penn State team in overtime.
With a conference schedule as daunting as Indiana’s, IU simply can’t afford to have an unicorn-type performance from someone new each night. It’s an obvious piece of analysis, but a critical one: what’s needed is consistency. Of course, that begins with IU’s veterans, who certainly took a step in the right direction Wednesday.
Beyond that, Indiana will only be afforded the chance to utilize its true depth if its leaders can first pave the way. Freshman Trey Galloway was again a force in transition, doing the little things right and setting up Indiana’s offense beautifully in some of Wednesday’s biggest moments.
“He’s fearless in terms of putting the ball on the floor and getting places and being able to get it to people,” Miller said. “He’s as good of a playmaker as I’ve seen, especially at his age. The thing he can do for our team is make other guys better.”
But Galloway only scratches the surface of the talent pool that Miller should be able to turn to. Due to the tightness of Wednesday’s contest, there was just no opportunity at all to see the likes of Anthony Leal or Jordan Geronimo on the floor. Should Indiana’s offense show up in the way it did on Wednesday — in the same way it can and should for the rest of its Big Ten slate — that narrative could change in the coming weeks.
Indiana might not be where Indiana should be, and Indiana is still certainly figuring itself out on the fly as the conference season begins. But on Wednesday, Indiana also stopped the bleeding, and took a few critical steps forward in showing how this can be a team with tremendous potential, as 2020 finally draws to a close.