Better late than never.
After a miserable stretch that saw Indiana lose 12 of 13 games during Big Ten play, the Hoosiers have almost inexplicably found themselves at would could quite literally be the last possible moment.
Indiana played their best offensive game in months on Thursday night at Illinois, and in so doing continued to enhance an NCAA Tournament resume that just two weeks ago appeared to be a lost cause.
With a 92-74 win at the State Farm Center, the Hoosiers have now won three games in a row and return home for the final regular season game of the season against Rutgers.
If IU can claim that victory over the Scarlet Knights they will already be in a position where selection day for the NCAA Tournament is at least interesting, with the opportunity to further enhance their resume in the Big Ten Tournament.
Indiana (16-14, 7-12) and Rutgers tip-off at noon on Sunday in Bloomington.
Things were tight through the first ten minutes as Illinois knocked down three-pointers and things had the look of IU running into another hot team on the road. But it really didn’t matter how hot the Illini were on this night, because the Hoosiers always had an answer.
After a 16-12 Illinois lead with 13:43 remaining, IU would go on to outscore the Illini 80-58 the rest of the way in a dominating effort.
The Hoosiers exceeded or matched their point totals for the game against Purdue and Ohio State by halftime. They hadn’t broken 70 in regulation through the last six contests, but on Thursday night, it was a relentless wave of scoring that started with protecting the ball, and finished with attacking the opportunities created by Illinois’ aggressive style.
For IU head coach Archie Miller, the recent improvement comes down to playing hard, and building off the confidence gained from two wins last week —
“We are definitely playing better than we were,” Miller said. “Even in some of our losses here in the last couple weeks we are playing better. Hard fought games, we’ve been in a lot of them, but I feel like our team right now is in a position that we’ve earned some confidence back with how we’ve worked and with how we’ve even lost some games whether it was the Purdue game or even the Iowa game, we were right there to win those two games and you come back and you’re able to find a way to get Wisconsin and Michigan State. That took a little bit of the weight off your shoulders and I thought we prepared this week and came down here, you know we’ve been the same team. We haven’t gotten too high or low in the last three weeks and the big key going into Sunday can be can we just be the same team that we were coming in. That’s the whole key.”
The Hoosiers turned the ball over just seven times on the road against the Big Ten’s best team at forcing miscues. Let that sink in.
IU’s seven turnovers are the fewest forced by Illinois this season. They have been causing 16.4 per game. Ball protection has been a theme throughout the three-game winning streak, as IU has turned the ball over just 9.3 times per game during those contests.
Miller wasn’t afraid to admit that Thursday night’s turnover total was better than even he could have expected —
“To only turn it over seven times was a surprise to be honest with you,” Miller said. “But we scored….and that speaks volumes about our guys being able to take care of it.”
More than just taking care of the ball, Indiana capitalized on their possessions. Indiana scored 1.37 points per possession, compared to a season average of 1.09.
The Hoosiers shot 55.4 percent from the field, their highest since shooting 64.8 percent against Jacksonville back in December.
For Miller, good spacing and not settling for jump shots keyed the offensive efficiency.
“I thought our spacing was pretty good and I thought our guys did a decent job of being able to get all the way to the basket,” Miller said.
IU was also strong once again on the offensive glass, rebounding nearly 40% of their misses and getting 14 second chance points in the process.
Indiana wasn’t as sharp on the defensive end, as the Hoosiers allowed Illinois to hit 50% of their shots and forced just 10 turnovers. Both figures were much better than the norm for the Illini.
On the season, Indiana allows just .94 points per possession according to KenPom, but on this night Illinois managed 1.12.
Some of it was just Illinois hitting three-pointers, but Indiana seemed a step slow at times both on dribble drives and reacting to Illinois rotations.
Miller summarized it quite simply as “our defense wasn’t as good tonight.”
OTHER GAME COVERAGE
- Three keys, final box score, specialty stats
- Archie Miller post-game
- Brad Underwood post-game
- Todd Leary post-game show
(players with meaningful minutes)
- Juwan Morgan* (A-) Morgan had one of his better games over the last few weeks in his final Big Ten road game. He used his size and quickness to take advantage of matchups and finished strong at the basket. He did a good job of avoiding fouls but the byproduct may have been allowing too many scoring opportunities for Illinois in the post.
- Justin Smith* (A-) Smith continued his recent trend of playing within himself and not forcing things that are beyond his current skill set. He used his size advantage effectively around the basket. The result was another efficient game from the field and a nice midseason turnaround for a season that was headed the wrong way.
- Romeo Langford* (B) It wasn’t a big scoring night, but Langford come up with some strong rebounds and continues to show a willingness to defend. He still struggles at times to read defenses that are so heavily focused on stopping him, but he only had one turnover on the night.
- Al Durham* (C+) The sophomore guard has been quiet the last couple games and has ceded minutes to the hot hand as a result. Durham doesn’t need to be a high volume producer, but the Hoosiers need a bit more to continue to win games.
- Rob Phinisee* (A+) Both Miller and Brad Underwood were effusive in their praise for Phinisee, whose return to form has been the central theme of Indiana’s improved play. 17 points, 5 assists and no turnovers against that defense is a truly impressive stat line, and his defense on lightning quick Trent Frazier was good for most of the game too.
- Devonte Green (A+) Green has put together an incredible two game stretch, giving IU a much needed three-point scoring threat. Beyond that, he had 6 assists, 4 rebounds and no turnovers in a complete 25 minute effort. Once again Green was also effective on defense, especially in disrupting the post.
- De’Ron Davis (B+) The junior big man looks as healthy and mobile as he has since before his Achilles injury. He did a nice job finishing around the basket, and he has brought a bit of an edge to this team that was sorely lacking.
- Evan Fitzner (B) As always, it seems like a heat check for Fitzner, and he came in and hit a big shot for IU in a brief 4 minute run in this one.
- Zach McRoberts (B) He didn’t play long, but McRoberts appeared as though he might be getting healthier than he has been for most of the season.
- Race Thompson and Damezi Anderson also saw brief action in the game.
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