By Dustin Dopirak —
In his team’s first seven Big Ten games, Archie Miller gradually got the sense that his team was losing its identity. After its double-digit home loss to Purdue last week, that feeling became impossible to ignore.
Miller knew his Hoosiers had flaws, especially on the offensive end, but he believed he had a team that could be sturdy enough on defense to always give itself a chance. However, from the Big Ten opener on Dec. 23 through that loss to the Boilermakers, he saw more and more breakdowns, less and less adequate ball pressure, and more and more failures to close out that led to open 3-point shots.
“In some ways we have been a reflection of what we’ve been doing every day,” Miller said. “We weren’t playing hard. We weren’t playing tough enough. The bottom line is we lost confidence in what we did well for a long part of the season.”
But on Thursday night in Iowa City, the Hoosiers did what they do well better than they’ve done it before this season and in so doing grabbed a victory that will echo in March as likely the most valuable NCAA Tournament-resumé game on their schedule. They defeated No. 4 Iowa 81-69, smothering the second-highest scoring team in the country and the nation’s most efficient offense in its lowest scoring output of the season, improving to 9-6 overall and 4-4 in the Big Ten.
The Hawkeyes came into Thursday’s game averaging 92.2 points per game and 125.2 points per 100 possessions, they were shooting a touch under 50 percent from the field and they’d hit more 3-pointers than anyone in the Big Ten and all but 12 teams in the nation. The Hoosiers became the third team to hold them under 80 points and the first to hold them under 70. The Hawkeyes shot 38.1 percent from the field for the game and 26.5 percent in the second half and made just five of their 23 3-point attempts including just one of their last 16.
Considering the opponent, it goes down as one of the most impressive defensive feats in college basketball this season, and the Hoosiers managed to pull it off without one of their best wing defenders in freshman Trey Galloway and with their only two true post players battling foul trouble most of the evening.
“It really started in practice this week,” junior guard Rob Phinisee said. “Coming off that Purdue loss, we felt like we didn’t play as hard as we could. It was really intense. We just felt like we had to pick up our defensive intensity. I felt like we did a good job as a team.”
Iowa tests the entire fabric of opposing defenses because it has the nation’s leading scorer and most effective big man in All-American Luka Garza and surrounds him with lights-out shooters all around the perimeter. So teams have to decide whether and how to double-team him while still keeping from getting burned from outside.
The Hoosiers doubled, but did so strategically, knowing who they could leave and who they couldn’t. They didn’t expect to shut Garza out and they didn’t, as he managed 28 points and 12 rebounds, but he was 10 of 22 from the field and 1 of 4 from beyond the 3-point arc, so he’s had more efficient nights.
“He’s hard to deal with,” Miller said. “He really is. … It wasn’t perfect, he still got his 28 and 12, but hopefully he really had to earn them.”
And that was true even when forwards Trayce Jackson-Davis and Race Thompson each had four fouls and had to come out from the 8:10 mark to the 4:25 mark in the second half. Seldom-used freshman Jordan Geronimo, who at 6-foot-6 was giving up 5 inches to Garza, held him to a total of one point in that period and was sturdy against him on other occasions when he drew the assignment. Geronimo also finished with seven points on 3 of 3 shooting in 10 minutes in what counts as a breakout game after he had played a total of 58 minutes all season coming into the game.
“Jordan Geronimo, best game he’s played as an Indiana player,” Miller said. “His contribution tonight was awesome in terms of how he brought energy, how physical he was. He was guarding Luka Garza and he did just as good of a job as anyone else on the team.”
The Hoosiers’ perimeter players, meanwhile, latched on to Iowa’s shooters, especially from the final 10 minutes of the first half on.
The Hawkeyes made four of their first 7 3-pointers and were 10 of 17 from the field at the 11:23 mark of the first half. After that, however, they missed their next 14 3-pointers and didn’t hit another until Garza made one with 27 seconds to go.
The Hoosiers were fortunate that guard C.J. Frederick was never 100 percent. The Hawkeyes’ fourth leading scorer entered the game shooting 50 percent from beyond the arc, but he was a game-time decision to start with and didn’t play the second half after missing two field goals in 11 first-half minutes. Veteran guards Joe Wieskamp and Jordan Bohannon were both available however and Indiana defended them masterfully.
Wieskamp scored 15 first-half points on 6 of 8 shooting, but he managed just one point and missed both of his field goals in 17 second-half minutes. Meanwhile Bohannon, who hit a combined 10 3-pointers in his last two games against Indiana in the 2018-19 season before missing most of last year with an injury, was held scoreless, missing all nine of his field goals including eight 3-pointers.
Starting guards Phinisee, Al Durham and Armaan Franklin switched up those assignments throughout the game, and Phinisee in particular was excellent at making Bohannon uncomfortable, fighting through screen after screen to make sure he never took a shot without a hand up in his vicinity. Franklin mostly drew the Wieskamp assignment in the second half and Durham found himself on both guards
“Rob, Armaan in the second half in particular and Al Durham, I think those three guys were terrific defensively in terms of being on the catch, ready and there,” Miller said. “I thought Rob maybe had one of the best defensive performances in his college career for the minutes that he played. I thought he was unbelievable on the ball.”
The combination of steady resistance to Garza and constant harassment of outside shooters led Iowa to a complete offensive malfunction in the second half. They missed all 12 of their field goal attempts from the 12 minute mark to the 1 minute mark, allowing Indiana to outscore them 29-11 in that period including a 21-3 stretch from the 12 minute mark until there was just 2:05 to go. They finished 9 of 34 from the field but had to hit three of their last five shots in the final minute just to make it that respectable.
“We’ve shown all season long that if we’re locked in and zoned in,” Miller said, “we can defend.”
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