BLOOMINGTON – After Indiana fell behind by 10 at home against Northwestern, it was fair to wonder whether this Hoosiers team had what it takes to win consistently in the loaded Big Ten. Even after IU came back and won that game, most of the discussion was about what was wrong and what was needed to fix it.
The consensus from Archie Miller and his players was that the team simply needed to play harder, especially on defense. Yes, the Hoosiers had been missing a lot of jump shots and that made scoring points difficult, but that was out of their hands. They can control their effort and defensive intensity and those had to improve.
Today, they did in a big way. The Hoosiers put together one of their most inspired efforts of the season, limiting a good Ohio State team to just 33% shooting and winning 66-54 to get back above .500 in Big Ten play.
The two key figures in the win were guards Devonte Green and Robert Phinisee. Miller has emphasized that his guards have to lead the charge on both ends and that's exactly what happened today.
Green provided a huge spark off the bench, particularly in the second half when he made a series of huge baskets. He sat for a long stretch in the second half against Northwestern and he came out motivated and ready to play today. It always helps Green when he sees some jump shots fall, but today he was engaged on the defensive end all afternoon, as well, which was encouraging. Now comes the hard part: repeating this performance.
"He did a really good job yesterday in practice," Miller said of Green. "He did a really good job today, and then we just wake up tomorrow and hopefully we're going to see him do a good job tomorrow because it is what it is. Because I'll tell you, when he plays well, we're a different team."
For all the talk over the last few days about shortening the rotation, Indiana instead played all 10 available scholarship players (Damezi Anderson was out with an illness) and got more contributions from its bench than it had in any big game this season. Green scored 19 points and the bench as a whole had 31 after scoring just five against Northwestern. Redshirt freshman Jerome Hunter had, in Miller's view, the best game of his young college career, getting to the foul line six times and playing airtight defense on the perimeter. Indiana's depth provides an advantage and the Hoosiers needed it today against a physical Buckeyes team.
That depth was evident on defense, where the Hoosiers were able to run a variety of different players at Ohio State big man Kaleb Wesson. Joey Brunk and Trayce Jackson-Davis each got in some foul trouble, but De'Ron Davis came in off the bench and helped limit the Buckeyes' leading scorer. Wesson has had some huge games against the Hoosiers in the past and still finished with 11 points and 10 rebounds today, but he was unable to get many looks in the paint and the Hoosiers' post defenders matched his physicality, which is difficult to do. He's among the best low-post players in the country and today Indiana made him nearly a non-factor down low. It was exactly what the Hoosiers failed to do a week ago against Maryland's Jalen Smith and Brunk and Davis deserve a lot of credit.
"For the first time that we've played Ohio State, we were able to hold serve (against Wesson) one-on-one," Miller said. "He has mauled us for two years. Their team has mauled us for two years, really in general from a physicality standpoint. ... I thought Joey battled, I thought he played really, really hard."
That post defense was representative of a team-wide trend today: the Hoosiers showed more toughness than they have really all season. Even the big win over Florida State in December happened mostly because of Green's creative shot-making down the stretch. Ohio State came ready for a battle and the Hoosiers needed to be physical for 40 minutes. They did that and earned a victory. After two days of intense practice and talk about the need to bring more energy, a loss today would have been deflating. Instead, it could be galvanizing and give the Hoosiers confidence as they depart for two tough road games this week, against Rutgers and Nebraska (yes, those are both tough games this year, especially on the road).
"Each game that goes by is going to be 50 times harder than (the last) one," Miller said. "We've just got to keep raising our level of intensity and we've got to stay with it, and I think this team has a chance."
The key going forward will be replicating this effort on a consistent basis. During Miller's tenure Indiana has periodically had games like today, where it looks like the Hoosiers are putting it all together and playing with relentless intensity. In the past, it hasn't lasted. This team will try to prove it can this time over the next few weeks.