If you are looking for a line of demarcation, that’s the date that the light switch was officially flipped to “off” as a once promising Indiana basketball season went dark.
Your instincts probably told you that something seemed terribly wrong with this IU team during that Monday evening contest against Nebraska. In our Report Card for that game, we suggested that it felt like the season had “just taken a dramatic turn.”
And Tuesday night after the Purdue game, head coach Archie Miller confirmed it.
When pressed for a turning point to the season, the second year Hoosier head coach said this —
“I would say that losing at home to Nebraska in the way that we did shook us, shook our confidence. We’ve been trying to fight our way out of that,” Miller said.
Let’s be honest, that light was flickering like it might go out long before Nebraska. Close calls against Northwestern, Louisville and Butler created a false sense of security while we blissfully ignored the looming trouble.
But after falling behind 26-9 against the Cornhuskers to start that fateful mid-January game, everything changed.
Truth be told, not every light went out that night. One remained. And it was a bright red WARNING.
WHAT WENT WRONG
There were a lot of challenges facing Indiana as they looked to snap a two game conference losing streak against Nebraska last month. That game was particularly important because it was sandwiched between six of seven on the road. Perhaps IU felt the pressure of getting that home win?
Rob Phinisee played against the Cornhuskers but he was largely ineffective while still working his way back from a concussion. De’Ron Davis was dealing with an ankle issue and hobbled through a couple minutes before calling it quits. Al Durham left the game with an injury and didn’t return. Zach McRoberts was still playing but was a shell of his former self.
Ten players played in the game for Indiana, and only six of them were healthy. Clifton Moore was IU’s third leading scorer with five points.
Somewhere between a seemingly never ending rash of injuries, a Nebraska 1-3-1 zone, and Hoosier shots clanking of the rim, the collective confidence of this team reached its tipping point that night — and the lights went out.
So how was Miller going to contend with what he referred to at the time as “probably one of the most disappointing games that we’ve played as a team this season”?
Of course they’ve been working to get the power back on ever since. They always give you a window of time when you should expect the lights to come back on, but that’s just an educated guess. On that topic, Miller said this after the Purdue game —
“We’ve been trying to fight our way out of that a few times. You saw tonight, obviously at Michigan State we had a nice performance there, but in most of our other games, it’s usually been about the confidence level of our team and forgetting at times what really, really matters, and that’s the unquestioned max effort that you give regardless of the circumstances.
That’s been hard. It’s one of the things I think that our team has gone through. A lot of different guys just feel that letdown, and it doesn’t — it just kind of weighs on you.”
But by and large, nothing had been working. Until the Purdue game. Sort of.
A MIRACLE CURE….OR FOOL’S GOLD?
It had been roughly 37 days since the lights went out in Bloomington.
And then suddenly…..Voila! Lights!
Okay, not exactly. The lights were back on in Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, but strangely only on one end of the Branch McCracken Court.
Let’s be clear here. The lights aren’t coming back on the offensive end for IU. Sure there will be the occasional Marquette and Michigan State anomaly, but for the most part that bulb seems stuck on dimly lit.
Miller tried to warn us coming into the season that this wasn’t a good perimeter shooting team. As much as some armchair coaches might object, there is only so much you can do to change that. And now that Big Ten coaches have figured out how to make Indiana’s shooting problem the only solution, well, you know how this story goes.
But the one thing that you can always control is your passion for the game. Or your “unquestioned max effort” as Miller put it. That switch was unquestionably flipped back on against Purdue. This is how Miller described it —
“I just thought in general we had to drastically change our attitude, the way we think about things right now, how we approach our team concept, how we approach our practices, and I thought talking it out and having our team speak was a big thing, and those guys obviously looked at one another and said, this isn’t how it’s supposed to be,” Miller said. “And I think that is the change that has to stay, because clearly we played a very good team tonight in front of obviously an amazing environment.”
“I know there’s more to this game than most, but our team competed tonight at a great level and a lot of guys made a lot of hard plays…..we just have to stay with what we kind of talked about here the last 48 hours and especially the guys in that locker room have to understand that the sting is there, but the disposition and the mentality has to stay with what we were at tonight.”
Was it just a brief respite before the next blackout? Was it just a sudden burst of energy for a rivalry game? That’s a reasonable question, and it was asked of senior co-captain Juwan Morgan —
“I think it’s a change in mentality, just that we have no choice but to maintain,” Morgan said.
No there really is no choice at this point. But here’s the real question — What took so long?
It had been 37 days since that Nebraska game — and nothing changed. But then Indiana had just two days off between a humiliating loss to Minnesota and Tuesday night’s suddenly inspirational effort against Purdue.
What was figured out in those two days that couldn’t have been conjured up much, much sooner?
After all, we aren’t talking about implementing some elaborate new scheme. We’re talking about energy. Enthusiasm. Passion. And somehow that switch got flipped over the course of the last few days.
That’s the question that wasn’t asked of Miller after the Purdue game — but probably should have. At 13-13 overall, and 4-11 in the Big Ten, you’re not wrong to feel like the lights just came back on in the Titanic.
In the intervening weeks since Nebraska were several games that could have completely changed this season. Ohio State, Rutgers and at Northwestern are a few that come to mind.
To be fair, the injury situation that we referenced at the outset has certainly played a role. Good luck finding any continuity, energy or passion when you only have enough scholarship players to go 4-on-4 at practice. Conversely, the team is now as healthy as it has been all year.
And as we’ve stated before, it isn’t uncommon for new coaches to go through rough patches before they figure things out.
But by the same token, this run of futility has been one of the worst stretches for the program in more than 50 years save for the Tom Crean rebuild years. And if nothing else, Miller’s Dayton teams were known for playing with energy and togetherness.
It isn’t unreasonable to expect that Miller might have gotten through to his team earlier and saved this season.
The future isn’t light or dark right now. It is just a void. A vast unknown that extends from the next game to the next few seasons.
If you think you have a firm grip on what to expect from this Hoosier team at Iowa on Friday night, then I’ve got some fine ocean front property to sell you right there in the Hawkeye State.
Whether it translates to wins or not, Miller recognizes that his team has to hang on to its delicate newfound energy for dear life —
“How we practiced last couple days is exactly how we played tonight in terms of our energy and our effort,” Miller said. And I think that’s the thing that you’ve got to hold dear to your heart as a group all the time. It can’t ever leave you. When it does, bad things happen. I think we know that. But if we’re like we were tomorrow, if we’re tomorrow like we were the other day, we’ll continue to get better.”
Down to the final month of his career, Morgan remains optimistic that the lights can still shine bright for this team —
These last few games we still have a chance. Everything we want is still in front of us, and I’m proud of how the guys fought today. If we keep that mentality on the defensive end, then it’s going to be a tough team to stop,” Morgan said.
As Purdue found out on Tuesday night, Indiana can indeed be a tough team to stop when the lights come on and they play with unquestioned max effort.
Why it took so long to figure things out might just remain a mystery. But it’s all moot now anyway.
For the players and coaches, there is only looking forward.
There is no sense in looking back anyway.
You can’t see anything back there….in the dark.
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