Confidence is such an amazing thing to watch come and go.
Not our words.
That was Indiana head basketball coach Archie Miller on Monday night on his radio show with the voice of IU basketball Don Fischer.
Drowning in the mires of a miserable stretch of losing, confident was one thing that Indiana clearly was not.
And then suddenly, when it seemed more unlikely than ever, everything changed.
We are only in the early chapters of the story of Miller’s career at Indiana, but his ability to refocus his team late as a season seemingly spiraled out of control has all the earmarks of the beginning of something special.
And it started from somewhere awful.
After a performance at Minnesota that was so inept and uninspiring that even Fischer was exasperated, Miller promised drastic changes.
But here’s the thing — that’s a dangerous promise.
If Miller didn’t deliver, and the sprial continued, then what? The coach lost his team. Indiana is in a state of chaos. Recruits be afraid. Very afraid.
Those would have been the narratives surrounding this team.
PASSING THE ULTIMATE TEST
It was clear something had changed during the first game post-Minne-pocalypse. In a losing effort, the Hoosiers exhibited as much fight, determination and effort as they had shown all season.
The Hoosiers held Purdue 30 points under their season scoring average in an inspiring defensive effort. And yet they still came up short. A last second loss to a rival at home in a game that ended on a questionable no-call — surely that sucked the life out of this team, right?
Next it was on to Iowa, where another extraordinary effort had IU up late in regulation — before the second act of the Jordan Bohannon freak show began. Heartbroken losers yet again, now 12 out of 13 games, and yet somehow the show went on — and these Hoosiers didn’t quit.
If you were alarmed back in December that the pattern of falling behind early and stealing games late was an unsustainable smoke-and-mirrors act, well, you were spot on.
Back in the December days of plenty, when Indiana was getting fat on close calls, the signs were there.
At least internally.
“There’s times where you go on these ups and downs where your attitude is masked by wins and when you lose you see everything so to make the best out of our situation was to collect our attitude as a team,” Miller said on Monday night.
Could it really be that simple? An attitude adjustment?
In discussing what Indiana needs to do to keep their going momentum going, Miller hinted at what got things going sideways to begin with —
“So for us, can we get better, can we be the same team we’ve been the last three weeks, is anyone going to take their focus off, are we going to lose somebody to, you know, to lackadaisical, you know — do we get distracted,” Miller said on Sunday after the win over Rutgers.
Miller and his coaching staff were able to get through to some players by “embracing guys and making them better by challenging them” as he put it. While he didn’t name names, the obvious outward example was the benching of Justin Smith for the second half of the Iowa game.
Smith, who was not going to start in the next game against Wisconsin, has responded. Plugged into the lineup late because De’Ron Davis fell ill, Smith has averaged 14 points and 5.5 rebounds per game during this four game winning streak, including a career high 24 point effort against Michigan State.
Smith hasn’t quit. He has refocused. And his teammate and senior co-captain Juwan Morgan sees an entire roster of guys that have a renewed fight —
“I think all the guys, they are not really taking any days lightly. Any day could be the last day, we never know. That’s exactly how we’re playing,” Morgan said after the Rutgers game.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
The times of challenge and controversy for this team have been undeniable. Lesser players, playing under the direction of lesser coaches, would have collapsed under the weight of it all.
This team has persevered.
“We haven’t been able to talk about anything but survival for a long time and that’s sort of why we’re here because we’ve kind of said there really isn’t anything other than just do it,” Miller said. You have to do it the right way, and we have a good attitude right now.”
That perseverance and those good attitudes have finally led to a team that is playing with confidence. And finally, that confidence led to some wins.
“I think one or two wins in this business removes the cloud from over you and the players having experienced some wins down the stretch a good thing,” Miller said.
Junior guard Devonte Green, who has been a critical part of the revival, was speaking for himself, but he could have been speaking for the entire team when he said this about his confidence on Tuesday — “I think it’s higher than it’s been in the past.”
Higher indeed. And beyond higher confidence and improved attitudes, there is another major story behind the change of fortunes in Bloomington.
HEALTHY AT LAST
There have been several references by Miller and his players with regard to improved practice habits and competition in recent weeks. It should come as little surprise that has translated to the games.
And it should come as little surprise that this has all happened as Indiana has rounded into its healthiest form of the season.
We’ve documented the impact of the complete return of point guard Rob Phinisee. Indiana was also without De’Ron Davis and Green for critical stretches. Then there was Jerome Hunter, and Race Thompson, and Zach McRoberts, and on and on it went.
For Miller, a healthier roster has meant an increased ability to have his own measure of confidence regarding who he puts into the games, and his ability to use the bench as a motivational tool –
“I think the one thing that feels good as a staff right now is we’re not so — we’re not so like restricted with our lineup anymore,” Miller said. “I think that’s helped us being able to say, hey, this guy is not playing as well or there’s foul trouble and not being so insecure about your bench. I feel like our bench has really been a good boost here in our last four or five games.”
A deeper team means a team that not only looks better in games, but one that is actually getting better at practice.
For most of the season, Indiana has not had enough healthy players to practice 5-on-5 with scholarship players. Now, the intensity has picked up, both because of the improved level of talent, but also because the players know that game minutes are on the line.
Better intensity at practice was the first thing that senior Evan Fitzner pointed to when quizzed on the sudden turnaround —
“I think one of the big things is we picked up our intensity in practice. You know, I think every day we’re competing right now and when you do that, the game seems easy, so I think that’s been a big thing” Fitzner said after the Rutgers game.
Healthy, better attitudes, and more confident — the sky is the limit for this team.
Except for one lingering problem — the problem that this team created for itself through weeks of injuries, bad attitudes and a lack of confidence.
Watching this team over the last three weeks, there is no doubt that Indiana is an NCAA Tournament caliber team. None.
But ultimately that may not matter — because this team has no margin for error.
One slip, one off night, and it could all come to a sudden end. Especially if it comes on Thursday against Ohio State.
At 17-14, that’s just the corner that Indiana has backed themselves into.
But if the last few weeks are any indication, being backed into a corner is when this team is at its best.
You can follow us on Twitter: @daily_hoosier
Find us on Facebook: thedailyhoosier
The Daily Hoosier –“Where Indiana fans assemble when they’re not at Assembly”
Want to receive all of our content via one e-mail in your inbox every day? It’s free. Join our daily mailing list here.
Please consider supporting The Daily Hoosier by shopping on Amazon via this link to the Amazon home page or through the ad below.