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IU basketball has seen better days…and then the bottom drops out

Call it the Gus Johnson curse.

“My intuition’s telling me, there’s gonna be better days for IU!” Johnson exuberantly proclaimed as Indiana completed a stunning come-from-behind win at the Crossroads Classic against Notre Dame in 2017.

After an erratic 5-5 start to the Archie Miller era, Johnson felt he saw something special brewing as the Hoosiers overcame a 13-point second half deficit to beat the No. 18 Fighting Irish.  Johnson’s optimistic outlook was shared by most IU fans.  Fueled by a monster performance by Juwan Morgan, Indiana seemed to figure something out during that second half in Indianapolis, outscoring Notre Dame 27-16 over the last 4:24 of regulation plus overtime.

Johnson’s intuition was off.  Two days later, IU was completely dismantled by Fort Wayne in Bloomington, 92-72.

“I’ve seen better days,” one-hit wonder Citizen King sang in 1999.  “And then the bottom drops out.”

That loss, to a Fort Wayne squad that finished 18-15 overall and just 7-7 in the Summit League, foretold what was to come over the next three plus years — in more ways than one.

Indiana has been something of a one-hit wonder during the Miller era, and the pattern continued last week.  Let’s check back in with Citizen King.

One foot in the hole (losing streak vs. Purdue)
One foot gettin’ deeper (another loss to Purdue) crank it to eleven (win at No. 4 Iowa)
And blow another speaker (lose at home to Rutgers)

If only for a moment, IU’s stunning road win against Iowa seemed to silence the critics.  Hoosier fans could hear Johnson’s voice again, only this time it was more question than pronouncement.

“There’s gonna be better days for IU?”

It was a question because Indiana fans now know the pattern.  Thrilling upset win, meet soul-crushing loss.

As ESPN’s Jeff Borzello tweeted after the Rutgers loss, Indiana is now just 2-9 during the Miller era in games that followed top-25 wins.  Here are those 11 games:

  • 2021:  Won at No. 4 Iowa, then lost vs. Rutgers
  • 2020:  Won vs. No. 9 Penn State, then lost at Purdue
  • 2020:  Won vs. No. 21 Iowa, then lost at Michigan
  • 2020:  Won vs. No. 11 Michigan State, then lost vs. Maryland
  • 2020:  Won vs. No. 11 Ohio State, then lost at Rutgers
  • 2019:  Won vs. No. 17 Florida State, then lost at Wisconsin
  • 2019:  Won vs. No. 6 Michigan State, then won at Illinois
  • 2019:  Won vs. No. 19 Wisconsin, the won vs. Michigan State
  • 2019:  Won at No. 6 Michigan State, then lost vs. Iowa.
  • 2018:  Won vs. No. 24 Marquette, then lost at Arkansas
  • 2017:  Won vs. No. 18 Notre Dame, then lost vs. Fort Wayne

Most of those losses were defined by head-scratching inconsistency.  But at times it seems like Miller would have no luck without bad luck.

Rob Phinisee suffered a concussion that wrecked his freshman season in the game that followed his miraculous 2018 shot against Butler.  After a 2019 win over Notre Dame, the Hoosiers next lost at home to Arkansas in a game during which Al Durham was ejected.  When IU finally secured a Big Ten Tournament win in 2020, the whole season was canceled.

The frustrating losses following energizing wins have only been one facet of a pattern of inconsistency during the last four seasons.

Indiana’s dominance on its home floor has waned during that span.  The Hoosiers were 564-117 (.828) at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall prior to Miller’s arrival, and just 46-19 (.707) since.  Indiana has completed nine perfect seasons since the building opened in 1971, and although Bob Knight claimed seven of those campaigns, Kelvin Sampson and Tom Crean also accomplished the feat.

During Crean’s time, even good opponents struggled against his mediocre teams in Bloomington.  That spawned the “you rank ’em and we spank ’em” expression.  But the spankings have been reduced to timeouts in the corner for IU on many occasions.  The Hoosiers are just 23-19 at home against high-major competition during the Miller era.

The good news is IU has still won some home games against ranked opponents over the last four seasons.  Eight to be exact, against seven losses.  But that also means IU has gone just 15-12 at home against unranked high-major competition — a fairly startling figure.

Of course most of those high major games have come against Big Ten competition, and that leads to the next area of inconsistency during Miller’s tenure.  Indiana has never finished above .500 in the Big Ten under Miller, and he is 31-39 against league opponents overall including Big Ten Tournament contests.

Miller has had Tom Izzo’s number of late, winning three in a row against the Spartans.  But overall against Wisconsin, Purdue, Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan, Miller has gone 5-21.  Here is how he has performed overall at IU against the other 13 conference teams.

  • Illinois:  3-3
  • Iowa:  4-2
  • Maryland:  2-3
  • Michigan:  0-4
  • Michigan State:  3-2
  • Minnesota:  4-1
  • Nebraska:  4-2
  • Northwestern:  3-2
  • Ohio State: 1-5
  • Penn State:  4-1
  • Purdue:  0-6
  • Rutgers:  2-4
  • Wisconsin:  1-4

One of those wins over Izzo had bookend seven and then six game losing streaks surrounding it in 2019.  But a major issue for Miller’s Hoosiers has been an inability to string together anything resembling that kind of stretch on the winning side.

In 2017-18, IU had a four-game Big Ten winning streak in February that followed a four-game losing streak and preceded a three-game losing streak.  In 2018-19, the Hoosiers started Big Ten play 3-0, only to lose 12 of 13 before ending league play on a four game winning streak.

Last season’s best run of conference success was four wins in five games — which was immediately followed by a four game losing streak.

Now Indiana hasn’t been over. 500 in Big Ten play in over a year, and Miller’s fourth season is following an all too familiar pattern.  Over its last six games Indiana has gone 3-3 and has followed each of those three wins with losses during that span.  IU’s longest winning and losing streaks are both two games this season.

The topsy-turvy, inconsistent mediocrity just seems to spin on and on, like a one-hit broken record.  Miller is 11-21 against ranked opponents, and 42-48 overall against high major competition while at IU.

In the earlier years the inconsistency could be explained away.  It was a depleted roster in year one and they were learning a new system.  The injuries reached ridiculous proportions in year two.  A still optimistic Citizen King might have said this…

I ain’t got, I ain’t got much to lose…

In year three you could point to faint glimmers of progress including a likely NCAA Tournament berth before the bottom dropped out of the entire season.  Overarching concerns were becoming difficult to ignore, however.  Recurring shooting troubles, good but inconsistent defense, and a lack of player driven leadership to name a few.

Things were still all good coming into this bizarre COVID-19 2020-21 season, and Miller seemed to have his best Indiana team.

But now things are getting dicey.  Miller is well into year four, and leading a program still with more questions than answers.  Miller does have a lot to lose if he can’t right the ship.  And his opportunity begins anew this week, again against a ranked opponent (Illinois), and again on his home floor.

After watching his team fall behind early in several home games, Miller is looking for a faster start on Tuesday night against the Fighting Illini.

“We have to find a way to start fast, especially at home,” Miller said last week. “Typically the pressure that you apply early in the game sets the rules, and we’re not setting the rules early in the game. We’re taking on a lot of water.”

If a loss to No. 19 Illinois is followed by a loss to No. 7 Iowa on Sunday, it could be the Miller era that begins to take on water.

Johnson was right after all.

Indiana has seen better days during Miller’s time in Bloomington.  Lots of them in fact.  But it’s been a day here, and a day there.  And then what seems to happen each time soon after could portend the story of his Indiana tenure.

The bottom drops out.

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