How “sweep” it is!

As I have on numerous occasions in the past, I sat in Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall (SSAH) today and witnessed something special. In the midst of a season that has left all of the Hoosier faithful scratching their heads, the Hoosiers seemed to have regrouped and found a way to win ballgames. Since the 21 point beatdown they took at the hands of Minnesota they’ve faced four straight ranked teams and not only could have won all four, they probably should have.

After beating #19 Wisconsin on Tuesday, they welcomed the #6 ranked Michigan State Spartans (MSU) to SSAH for a mid-day Big Ten (B10) battle. MSU had waited 31 days for their chance at revenge since Indiana (IU) went into the Breslin Center in East Lansing and shocked MSU, their fans, the IU fans, and pretty much anyone that follows college basketball. I mean after all, IU had lost seven straight games, with only the Maryland game being truly competitive, and MSU was ranked #6 in the country. Following that win the Hoosiers lost five straight, but aside from the Minnesota debacle, they had played better and were in the games with chances to win. They finally broke through against the Badgers and then today followed that up with todays win against the Spartans.

I said on Twitter that when I walked into SSAH today that it had the same “special” feel to it as the other special games I have attended over the years. Early on it appeared as though I was wrong. MSU came out of the gate executing their offense to a “T” and the IU offense looked as though they thought they were a team full of shooters as they continued to settle for jump shots. The Hoosiers were also a step slow and not communicating on defense.

Justin Smith was truly the lone bright spot in the first half. He pretty much singled handily kept IU within striking distance as the teams went to the locker room within MSU up by only seven points. I’m not 100% sure about the rest of the 17,000+ that were in attendance, but I was beyond happy with that considering how both the Hoosiers, and the Spartans, looked in the first half.

And even though it was obvious after the break that IU head coach Archie Miller had made some adjustments, IU couldn’t seem to get over the hump. Every time they would get within striking distance of it becoming really interesting, MSU would have an answer. But they were being met with much more resistance than they were in the first half, and IU had quit settling for shots they could get at any time in the shot clock on offense.

The Hoosiers got solid contributions on offense from everyone that saw the court in the second half, led by Justin Smith and Devonte Green. Yes, you read that right. The two players that have taken a lot of heat this year were the catalyst to slowly chipping away and the finally getting over the aforementioned hump. Defensively the Hoosiers took it to a whole other level. They ALL did, but none more so than freshman point guard Rob Phinisee. That young man went toe to toe with the best point guard in the B10, and arguably the best one in the country. Winston is a phenomenal talent. A talent that you don’t stop, you just hope to contain.

The effort of the rest of the Hoosiers in hedging and recovering helped keep Winston from just doing whatever he wanted to in the second half, but make no mistake about it, Rob Phinisee dug down deep and showed what he was made of in terms of toughness. He accepted the challenge and more than rose to the occasion. Of all of the injuries that IU has had to deal with this year, Phinisee’s concussion may have hurt them more than people initially thought.

The last 8 seconds of the game pretty much sum up what IU has to hang their hat on for the remainder of the year. MSU ball, under their own basket, down one. Everyone for IU stayed true to their assignments, which is key when the opponent has a player like Winston who can get free, or find the open man when he doesn’t. In this instance, he could do neither. No one helped off of their man leaving someone unattended, and Phinisee guarded Winston as good as you can possibly defend someone. Had that final shot went in, as devastating as it would have been, and hard as it would have been to do, you would just have to tip your hat to a young man making a tough, tough, shot.

But it didn’t go in, and the Hoosier players and their fans celebrated. This season may be remembered as the “what if” season. We may all be scratching our heads when talking about this season for years to come. But not today in SSAH. As the second half wore on, the toughness level of the Hoosiers rose. They refused to fold to any MSU run. They banded together and they fed off of the crowd that was cheering for their defense more than they were their offense.

Indiana fans understand basketball. The proof in that statement is in my 40 years of going to games in Assembly Hall it can be at it’s loudest when the fans are imploring the Hoosiers to get a stop on defense, or applauding a stop. I grew up on Indiana teams that played as tough a defense as you would see. I believe we have a coach that believes that defense is something to hang your hat on. Today, in the second half, we saw what a group of guys digging down and defending like their lives depend on it can do. Their NCAA Tourney lives did. Their offense kept them in this game, but their defense won this game.

Beating a team of MSU’s caliber is hard enough. Beating them twice in a season is almost unheard of. The Indiana Hoosiers, despite all of their head scratching moments this year did it though. Yep, they swept the might Spartans and it’s pretty damn sweet!