What The Hell Just Happened?!
On February 2nd, 2019 the Indiana Hoosiers landed in East Lansing, Michigan wallowing in self doubt amidst a seven game losing streak that had both the team and it’s fanbase wondering what had went wrong after ending the 2018 portion of the schedule with a 12-2 record that included not only three quality wins, but no damaging losses in regards to the opportunity to “dance” in March.
Even the 2019 part of the schedule didn’t necessarily start with unexpected results. The Hoosiers opened 2019 with a win against Illinois and a respectable eleven point loss on the road against previously unbeaten Michigan. But it was the start of that game that now looking back gave us our first hint that something was maybe going awry. After a horrible start IU settled down and actually out played Michigan, but they weren’t able to dig themselves out of the hole they had dug. They followed that up with an impressive start in College Park, Maryland, only to span the latter parts of the first half and the early parts of the second half with a dismal performance and had to scrap and claw to keep the game to a respectable three point loss.
The writing was on the wall for all to see, but most still held out hope that all would get back on track with the Hoosiers heading home to take on a pretty decent Nebraska team. The wheels truly started to come off in this game. They seemed disinterested from the get go. Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall is where Hoosiers go to cure what ails them, right? Not this time. Aside from the Marquette game in early November, questions surrounded whether or not IU had enough offensive weapons to consistently win in the Big10, but they had shown a willingness to defend, scrap for loose balls and rebounds enough to keep them in games and give themselves a chance at the end of games. That wouldn’t be the case against the Corn Huskers and the four games that followed. Purdue, Northwestern, Michigan and Rutgers took IU behind the woodshed and Indiana didn’t put up too much of a fight when they did.
Not that anyone ever feels good following a loss, the Rutgers game led most to believe that the season was lost and an Indiana return to being a perennial contender to win the B10 and make deep runs in the NCAA Tournament was further away than we had hoped. No knock against Rutgers, but Indiana teams just aren’t supposed to allow a 22-0 run against the Scarlett Knights. They just don’t. But they did, and there didn’t seem to be an easy answer as to why.
Although there was some looks of disbelief and confusion, there wasn’t necessarily any finger pointing going on amongst the players. But there was plenty to go around from the fans. “We don’t have any pure shooters!” Well no shit! I thought that was obvious from the get go. “Archie can’t coach at this level!” Oh my goodness. This is the one that left me shaking my head the most. We’re half way through his second year in Bloomington and have already decided that he can’t coach a roster full of players he didn’t recruit, and who it seems have all dealt with some kind of injury, and/or suspension this year.
And let’s be honest, heading to play the #6 ranked Spartans was not the recipe for breaking the longest losing streak since the 2010 season. With Michigan having lost to the Iowa Hawkeyes (IU’s next opponent) the night before and leaving the door open for MSU to take over sole possession of first place in the B10, the tasked seemed even more daunting, and the prospects of the IU’s skid reaching eight straight losses seemed like a forgone conclusion to most. Including myself, who may be the most optimistic person you’ll ever meet. I knew deep down inside that the Hoosiers could compete because I had seen them do it. But that also seemed like a long, long, time ago. Nonetheless, IU showed up at the Breslin Center, a place they had lost 21 of the last 22 games they had played there, ready to play and to try and right the ship.
As I prepared to watch the game my hope was a win, but more realistically, to just see them compete. To see them have the togetherness, the toughness, and the fight that they had shown against Marquette, Louisville, and Butler earlier in the year. The understanding that they have to share the ball on offense to be effective, and more importantly, that to win games they have to defend and battle every single possession. Get on the floor for loose balls, and go after rebounds like their lives depend on it. Obviously their lives really don’t, but how this season ends does.
Early on I think everyone with the same hopes as myself was pleasantly surprised. Although they didn’t come racing out of the gate, they also didn’t have the slow start that had become the norm. I kept waiting to see how IU would respond to the MSU run that was sure to come, but any run attempt by the Spartans was met with some digging in on defense by the Hoosiers. They were taking some body shots, but they were finally punching back again.
My first “OH NO! Are you kidding me?!” moment came with seven minutes to go in the first half when senior captain Juwan Morgan dove on the floor for a loose ball. Initially I was pumped because there were Hoosiers hitting the floor due to hustle again. But then the dust settled and everyone except Morgan got up, and there he was laying on the floor clutching his left shoulder. I began to wonder if this team isn’t cursed. He was helped to the locker room and wouldn’t return.
But I also noticed there were no “well, here we go again” looks from the players. In fact, they huddled themselves up and broke that huddle with looks of “let’s just keep doing what we’ve been doing.” In fact, their calmness was much more apparent than mine. During the current losing streak their confidence had been broken, crushed even. But they seemed to have gotten some of it back. They had also gotten two players back and the added depth had already shown that it was helping.
Trailing by only three at halftime had left me happy. But also anxiety ridden wondering how they would handle MSU after the ass chewing they were sure to be getting in their locker room at halftime. I wasn’t in there, but I garnish a wager that there wasn’t any ass chewing in the Indiana locker room. This team had played their best twenty minutes of basketball in a month. No, maybe not fundamentally their best. But by far their best defensively, and in showing toughness. You could see their confidence grow with each positive possession, both offensively, and defensively.
As the game progressed I was without a doubt was pleased, but about midway through the second half a “moral victory” wasn’t going to cut it in my mind. In fact, I thought that losing after playing so well in a game KenPom had given them a 7% chance of winning could be more detrimental to their confidence going forward than had it been some of the same basketball we had seen the past month. Every time it felt as though MSU had some momentum and was about to go on one of their patented runs, IU had an answer. There was no hesitation from shooters. They recognized any mismatches. They fed the post. They hit free throws. They found the open man. They defended and they battled on the boards. They believed they could win and they were doing what it would take to do so.
The game was not without a few of the head scratching plays, or decisions, but when a team is giving you everything they have, without their leader, you can live with a few of those. The Devonte Green stepping through a double team turnover at mid-court with a four point lead, the possession arrow in IU’s favor, a timeout in his pocket, and 37 seconds left in the game is an example. The Romeo Langford dribbling down the clock at the end of regulation step back off balance three at the buzzer being another. The no one coming to help on the inbounds pass that resulted in a deflected ball off of Al Durham’s leg is heat another. And we may as well throw in the first failed chance to basically seal the win from the free throw line.
But this time, in the end, these things didn’t matter. The Hoosiers left East Lansing feeling much better about themselves. They also left with a blueprint of how they have to play to give themselves a chance to win night in and night out in the B10. The blueprint from November and December must’ve been such a distant memory that it couldn’t be revisited in the minds of the young and battered Hoosiers. But now they have one that is so fresh in their minds that it hopefully pushes them through the remainder of the regular season as well as the post season.
There is not one single player that saw the floor that didn’t do something positive that contributed to this improbable win. De’Ron Davis battled fatigue, cramps, and the MSU bigs in his return from the injured section of IU’s bench. He was, for 25 exhausting minutes, what we had hoped he would be for us by the 2019 portion of the schedule. Devonte Green played well. He played in control, he distributed the ball, he defended, and he hit some timely shots. Al Durham played his ass off. He left the game in obvious pain with a dislocated finger, only to return with a little tape job and picked up right where he left off. Jake Forrester got some extended minutes due to Morgan’s absence and Davis’s fatigue, as well as his first real taste of B10 basketball, and like everyone else who saw the floor, he didn’t back down. He battled.
Justin Smith and Romeo Langford were warriors in Morgan’s absence. Langford played 41 of the 45 minutes and led the scoring with 19pts. He also had 5rebs. and 4asts. Smith played 35 minutes and had a double double with 13pts. 10rebs. and two huge blocked shots at key moments. Devonte Green had 11pts. 5rebs. and 5asts. Al Durham finished with 14pts. 3rebs. and 3asts. Evan Fitzner only had 3pts. 1reb. and 1ast. in his 8 minutes, but his three pointer was huge. For the Hoosiers, and for him. Damezi Anderson, Clifton Moore, and Robert Phinisee didn’t scratch the scoring column but Anderson and Moore’s ability to provide a minute or two break for someone else contributed to this win. Phinisee had 2rebs. and I thought played very good defense in his 18 minutes. Morgan finished with 5pts. 6rebs. and 2asts. in his 13 minutes.
The defensive effort and toughness of the entire team was the MVP in this game. IU doesn’t win without those things, as well as all of those numbers listed above. But if you HAD to hand out a game ball to a single player I think you had it to De’Ron Davis. He is nowhere close to being either healthy, or in shape, yet he was on the floor for 25 minutes and had 12pts. 6rebs. 4asts. and hit the free throws (not is forte) that sealed the win. He, like the rest of the team is probably sore and feeling every physical possession of this game this morning, but I bet they’re doing it with a smile on their faces for the first time since 2018.
Does this mark the turnaround to the season? Only time will tell, and that time starts on Thursday night when the Hawkeyes come to B-Town. But I do believe that this team gained some confidence last night. Winning one game does not cure all of your woes, but it can instill confidence in yourself, each other, and the system. One game can remind you of what you were doing earlier in the year to give yourself a chance to win basketball games against some very competition. This team now has something to build on, it’s up to them to do so. With the quality wins they have, I think a .500 record the rest of the way gets them into the NCAA tourney. I think that’s easily obtainable too. But they have to show what they showed against MSU for 45 minutes…that’s right, the 2018-2019 Indiana Hoosiers played not 40, but 45 minutes of pretty damned good basketball!
Seven straight losses in 2019, culminated by allowing a 22-0 run to Nebraska, and then followed by win on the road versus the now 18-4 #6 ranked Michigan State Spartans……WHAT THE HELL JUST HAPPENED?!