(Mark Humphrey / AP)

Hoosiers at the Crossroads — What Needs to Change as a Once Promising Season Teeters

Here we are.  At the crossroads.  Again.

No, not The Crossroads Classic.  As much as we’d like to back in that moment of delusional grandeur, it is long, long gone.  The calendar says that it was just a month ago.  Feels like a lifetime.

Just after Rob Phinisee hit his game-winning shot at The Crossroads, and admittedly still buzzing from a direct-to-the-veins injection of irrational euphoria, it felt like Indiana had moved on from its latest crossroads that was the firing of Tom Crean.  Buzzer beaters have a way of turning too close for comfort wins into holier-than-thou exuberance.

At The Crossroads, we had our man in Archie Miller, and a talented yet flawed team was “learning how to pull out wins.”  Or at least that’s how we rationalized it.  Those slow starts turned close wins would “serve us well in the Big Ten.”  That’s what we told ourselves.

Yes, just after The Crossroads, we convinced ourselves that we had moved beyond our latest crisis and into a new era — a return to elite blue blood greatness.

And yet here we are again, a mere 30 days later…back at the crossroads.

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Much more than a month ago, seven to be precise, we wrote this headline:

“With Juwan Morgan’s Return the Expectations Just Skyrocketed in Bloomington”

In that story, in what was admittedly another moment of irrational euphoria, we reasoned that from roster retention to recruiting success, the perfect storm had set up for big 2018-19 season for IU basketball.

Since then, it seems that a whole different kind of storm has ominously rolled in and conspired against these Hoosiers.

It started with the news just before the start of the season that newly minted gold jersey winning freshman Jerome Hunter would miss an unknown amount of time due to an undetermined medical condition.

The torrent of injury news has not relented since.  Just yesterday we officially learned that Hunter’s once promising freshman season would end before it ever started, while Al Durham left another game with an injury and 22 year old De’Ron Davis gave us a preview of how he might run when he is 72.

By our count, here are the games missed (or left early) due to injuries through 17 games:

  • Jerome Hunter (17)
  • Race Thompson (16)
  • De’Ron Davis (5)
  • Zach McRoberts (5)
  • Rob Phinisee (4)
  • Devonte Green (4)
  • Al Durham (3)
  • Juwan Morgan (1)
  • Romeo Langford (1)
  • Jake Forrester (1)

Forgive us if me missed anything here.  The excel macros, v-lookups and pivot tables required to track this stuff were tested to the limits.

The point here is not to make excuses.  Yes, the injuries have been bizarre to the point of comical.  At one point in the bowels of Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall we overheard Archie Miller say something to the effect of “we don’t even have enough players to practice.”

It’s a real issue.  It’s a major story.  But here, it’s context.  It’s context for how we got here.  And where we are right now is a pretty unpleasant place for a fan base with sky high expectations that their beloved program has rarely delivered on in recent decades.

There’s a certain recency bias that comes with a three game losing streak.  Especially a losing streak that is punctuated with a 15 point home loss at “The Carnegie Hall of College Basketball.”

For more context on that loss, Indiana’s program implosion riddled 2008-09 Hoosiers only lost two home games by more than 15 points.  We respect the hell out of Nebraska’s starting lineup and the energy they play with, but that game was an unmitigated disaster on so many levels.

Embarrassed, stunned and frustrated, Hoosier fans are understandably on the brink right now.

And this IU basketball team?  They are the crossroads.  This season could spiral out of control and turn into another NIT missing meltdown.  Or it could turn into a mid-season turnaround that you recognize merely by the year.  Such as 2002 or 1981.

As bad as things feel right now, Indiana still stands at 12-5 overall and 3-3 in the Big Ten.  Irrespective of how you feel right now, in light of the injuries that isn’t such a bad place to be.

And as unlikely as it seems right now, everything that we wrote about seven months ago is still attainable.  But clearly things need to change — and change fast.

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So what is the prescription for this death spiral that feels eerily similar to the 2017 version that led us to our most recent stop at the crossroads?

Here’s our take.  And we can assure you, we are most certainly not suffering from any irrational euphoria this time.

1. Welcome back Rob Phinisee, you are the third scorer.  It has been asked to the point of exhaustion.  Who is going to be the third scorer on this team?  Rob Phinisee was a prolific scorer in high school, he is clutch-as-hell (See: The Crossroads), and he is the future of this program.  We are done with expecting things that aren’t going to happen with others on this team.  Put the ball in Phinisee’s hands, and ask him, no, tell him to shoot the damn thing.

2. Juwan Morgan — you have to lead by leading.  Not just by example.  It doesn’t come natural for everyone, but Morgan is the only logical choice here to put this team on his shoulders.  He has seen everything.  His teammates respect him.  This team desperately needs a floor leader.  It desperately needs someone to hold others accountable — aggressively.  There is no one else that can do it.  This is your last run.  Get mad.  Take it personally.

3. Test the limits of Romeo Langford’s potential.  Put the ball in his hands.  Press go.  He is as good as it gets off the dribble, he’s unselfish, and his turnover count is reasonable.  Turn him loose.  Let him attack the rim, and if the defense helps, crash the offensive glass.  Basketball isn’t terribly complicated.  Put the ball in your best player’s hands and then take advantage of how the defense overreacts.  Langford played that game for four years in high school.

4. Push the pace.  One of the reasons that this team has played better late in games is because they feel a sense of urgency and play more downhill.  It’s also the brand of basketball that has been sold to recruits.  Indiana ranks around 200th nationally in adjusted tempo.  The offense is sputtering.  Let’s go.

5. Play with passion.  This is the hard one, and nothing else is likely to matter if Miller can’t crack this code.  These players have an opportunity that the rest of us dream about.  But sometimes they play like they are just passing the time.  We’ve seen more spirit in pickup games.

Miller referred to it as figuring out how to push the right buttons.  This is why he is paid millions.  And he knows how to do it.  Remember that IU team way back in the 2017-18 season that outrebounded Michigan State, the No. 1 rebounding team in the country, by a 53 to 29 margin?  It can be done.

IU’s second year coach has to get this right — because the expectations are still sky high.  But right now?  This season?  It’s at the crossroads.


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