BLOOMINGTON – I often describe this Indiana team as the "young Hoosiers." And why shouldn't I? Indiana started two freshmen and two sophomores tonight and another freshman was one of the first players off the bench. They are young. They're relatively inexperienced.
You wouldn't know it from the way they played tonight. This was a veteran team that took the floor against No. 24 Marquette, maybe not in age, but in spirit. While some might have expected the young Hoosiers to have some first-ranked-opponent jitters, there were none. They took command of the game in the first minute and never gave it up. By the time Indiana led 19-4, it was clear that this team does not plan on letting its inexperience show. When the final horn sounded, it was 96-73 and the Hoosiers had their first victory over a ranked team in almost 11 months.
This was the best win of the Archie Miller Era. After halting improvement throughout last season, the Hoosiers under Miller broke through. They played the way Miller envisioned when he recruited this class to Bloomington. We got a glimpse of Indiana's ceiling tonight.
"I mean, they have an identity," Miller said of his team. "I think if you watched us play on film and you just kind of know what's going on, you say to those guys, yeah, they're giving great effort. When you add in the mix that there are new guys in there, the older guys have really been able to hold down the rules and the talk and the communication. I think that's the vital part of growing as a program."
It's difficult to decide whether the offense or the defense was more impressive tonight. On offense, the Hoosiers had five players score in double figures, with Romeo Langford leading the charge with 22 points. Evan Fitzner added 16 in 17 minutes. For my money, however, it was the defense where the Hoosiers really showed how good they can be.
Defense is where young teams usually show their inexperience, but the young Hoosiers seem to have substituted effort for experience. This team plays hard, all the time, and it makes life miserable for opposing offenses. Marquette point guard Markus Howard came in averaging 26 points per game, but scored just seven on nine shots in the first half and was visibly frustrated in the second half because he was unable to get going. He still finished with 18 points, but Indiana's defense did what it needed to do to slow down one of the best scorers in the country.
Leading the charge in guarding Howard was freshman point guard Robert Phinisee. Stopping Howard was a team effort, but Phinisee was the one guarding him one-on-one for the bulk of the night. As he'd already shown, the freshman has no back-down in his game. He's fearless and he made everything difficult for Howard. Romeo Langford will probably be gone for the NBA after this season, but with Phinisee at point guard, the Hoosiers seem to have a long-term star in the making in its backcourt.
"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 (Howard) for most of the game and held his own.
"Not that he's perfect, but I haven't been around a young guard in a long time that has that type of quiet calmness, that's tough, that's smart. Once he gets more experience under his belt, you know, obviously he has a very bright future. He's a terrific teammate. I mean, he's everything that we knew when we recruited him. It's just hard to imagine the sturdiness in his ability to be that strong and tough early in his career."
Translation: Miller expected Phinisee to be very good. But not yet, not this soon.
Before the season began, I worried experts were putting too many expectations on these Hoosiers too soon. Sure, I reasoned, this is the most talented and deepest team in Bloomington for a while, but it's so young, there's bound to be some early mis-steps. Those mis-steps could (and probably will) still come, of course, but the poise and confidence this team has played with so far puts it far, far ahead of schedule.
At one point during the postgame press conference, Hoosiers SID J.D. Campbell broke in to announce that Indiana's 63.6 field-goal percentage was the best in Miller's tenure at Indiana.
"Oh, wow," Miller said. "That's a good night."
Yes, it was. And with the youngsters playing like veterans, it won't be the last good night this season.