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Eight-day turnaround: How Indiana basketball got its season back on track

In just eight days, Indiana basketball completely turned its season around.

And the Hoosiers didn’t need to get Race Thompson and Xavier Johnson back to do it.

Those injuries cost the team both depth and key pieces on both ends of the court. But Indiana’s issues went beyond those injuries.

This team had a mentality problem.

The Hoosiers crumbled when it mattered most against Iowa, Northwestern, and Penn State. Various things went against them, and they responded poorly. They hung their heads and let the moments get the best of them. And their opponents capitalized.

Trayce Jackson-Davis met with his teammates ahead of IU’s critical game against Wisconsin to get the squad on the right track. And after Indiana’s 82-69 win over Michigan State, its third straight victory, it’s clear that meeting got IU refocused.

“It was really just kind of talking to our guys and telling them that we’ve got to relax and take it one game at a time,” Jackson-Davis said after IU’s win at Illinois. “Taking it one game and then one possession (at a time), and everything will take care of itself. And that’s what we’ve been doing since the Wisconsin game. We’ve just got to take it one game (at a time). We can’t look ahead. We’ve just got to focus on the team in front of us.”

Since that talk, the Hoosiers (13-6, 4-4) have looked like a different team. The group that looked mentally weak during the losing streak has rediscovered the moxie it showed in big November wins over Xavier and North Carolina. After a stretch defined by poor effort and a lack of fight, Indiana is once again able to throw counterpunches.

IU now looks like a team that can adjust to different game circumstances. That’s starkly in contrast to the Hoosiers we saw in early January.

“We all just kind of came together,” said Trey Galloway after the Michigan State win. “Nobody panicked because there was no reason to panic. It’s a long Big Ten season and there’s still a lot of games left. We can’t get too high and we can’t get too low. We just have to stay even keel the whole time and know that we have a lot more games to be played.”

Indiana’s defensive improvement is the biggest on-court reason for the turnaround. Galloway said the team focused on getting back to its defensive identity for the Wisconsin game and knew that would lead to improvement elsewhere. After allowing at least 80 points in each of the three losses, IU has put up good — if not great — defensive performances in this three-game winning streak.

And it all traces back to effort.

Jackson-Davis has been a machine on offense, which has fueled Indiana in these victories. But he was doing that during the losing streak as well. He’s playing at an undoubtedly elite level, but the senior’s dominance isn’t the reason IU has turned its season around.

It’s been his supporting cast. In the three losses, the Hoosiers mainly leaned on Jackson-Davis and freshman Jalen Hood-Schifino offensively. But Jordan Geronimo has bounced back from tough outings with good performances during this winning streak. Galloway got rolling. Tamar Bates had a strong game against Michigan State. Malik Reneau has played better. CJ Gunn has made solid contributions off the bench in his short spurts.

Indiana’s depth has returned, and the Hoosiers don’t have to rely on Jackson-Davis to keep them in games.

There wasn’t a magic potion that the Hoosiers used to get more out of those secondary and tertiary options. They simply worked hard outside of game days.

“When we started to go into the tailspin, the only way to get out of a tailspin — I’ve always believed this as a coach — you’ve got to work your way out of it. So practice became even harder, and I became more demanding. I wanted more. We needed more,” IU head coach Mike Woodson said. “And we responded in the Wisconsin game, and it’s been a nice carryover to Illinois and now today.”

It took three games for Indiana’s season to be in despair, and it took just three more games for the Hoosiers to get back on track. There are many more three-game stretches left in the Big Ten season.

So where does this leave IU?

The Big Ten title is likely still out of reach, with Purdue at 8-1 in conference play and five other teams ahead in the standings. But Indiana could be back in play for a top-four seed and a double-bye in the conference tournament. This group has answered enough questions in the last three games that the double-bye is once again a realistic outcome.

There’s so much luck involved in the college basketball postseason, it’s hard to prognosticate where this team could end up in March. But in this turnaround, the Hoosiers have shown the mental toughness it takes to win in the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments.

Thompson returned in a limited capacity against Michigan State, playing just four minutes and committing three fouls. But, clearly, he is closer to making a full return. When that happens, and when Johnson also comes back, IU will be even more dangerous.

But it didn’t take those players returning for Indiana to correct its course.

The Hoosiers just had to get their heads back in the right places.

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