As the Indiana basketball team left Indianapolis on Saturday afternoon, it was difficult to ignore the similarities to this same point in the season last year.
A year ago it was true freshman Rob Phinisee at the microphone discussing his late game heroics in a win against Butler. This year, it was true freshman Armaan Franklin.
Last year Indiana moved to 9-2 after that Crossroads Classic win. This year the Hoosiers have moved to 11-1. An optimist sees good records. A pessimist can have legitimate questions both then and now regarding the way the Hoosiers are winning.
A year ago, a blowout loss at Duke made you wonder. This year, a blowout loss at Wisconsin left you scratching your head.
Last year a dominating performance against Marquette made you realize the enormous potential. Perhaps not quite as convincingly, this year the Hoosiers put together a strong performance in a double digit win over a top 20 Florida State squad.
Like the 2018-19 campaign, even with a good record there is a bit of an uneasy feeling about who this team really is.
A year ago you could argue that things started to fall apart in the first half of the game immediately after Butler when Phinisee suffered a concussion. IU managed to win that game against Central Arkansas and a couple more easier games before a brutal streak of 12 losses over 13 games that many believe was largely influenced by injuries, and none more than Phinisee’s.
That’s where the similarities seem to end, and where the knocking on wood begins.
It almost sounds strange to say it, but Indiana is at full strength, with all eleven scholarship players ready to go. That health gives the Hoosiers a deep bench, with head coach Archie Miller remarking on several occasions that he is comfortable going with all eleven in the rotation.
But even with a healthy team, there is uncertainty about this year’s edition of IU basketball that is largely driven by inconsistent play. Never was that better personified than on Saturday against Notre Dame, when IU played what might have been their best 24 minutes of the season, only to follow it up immediately with 12 of their worst.
“We obviously have a lot of work to do,” Miller said after the win over Notre Dame. “We can keep getting better in a lot of areas. For a while there we looked like a good team.”
Miller believes that lessons were learned in that loss to Wisconsin that are already paying dividends.
Last year Indiana seemed to lack an identity and vocal leadership. Now voices are emerging, as is a level of togetherness.
“Yeah, unfortunately we had to learn a hard lesson (against Wisconsin),” Miller said. “The stick-to-itiveness and the togetherness and the players grabbing each other by the jerseys and holding themselves accountable at different times in the game was needed, and that didn’t happen that day. I think it’s happened in the UConn game, it happened in the Nebraska game, and now it’s happened here again where we’re finding different ways to gut it out, finding ways to get a key stop, make a key play, and different guys are doing it.”
Also emerging is some semblence of an identity, with an ability to get to the foul line and dominate teams in the paint.
There are weaknesses too, however. While the Hoosiers are strong in the backcourt and in the paint, IU needs someone out on the wing to become an offensive threat. That in part has led to yet another poor three-point shooting team for Miller at Indiana as the Hoosiers are only making 32.2 percent from long range, which comes in at just No. 204 nationally.
Like last year, Miller’s read on his team and their strengths and weaknesses are once again about to be tested. After a final nonconference test against KenPom No. 37 Arkansas next weekend, Big Ten play resumes. If a December test run that saw just one league team win a road game in 14 tries is any indication, the Big Ten is going to be a nightmare. As it stands now, 11 of the conference’s 14 teams are ranked in the KenPom top 60.
Healthy and deep, a run of futility like last year’s 12 losses in 13 games seems highly unlikely. If he can find a way to get his team to play a more complete game, Miller’s balanced squad might surprise on the upside. The third year head coach is taking some degree of comfort in having a roster that is defined more by team than star power.
“It’s not a one-trick pony, so to speak,” Miller said. “We have different guys making plays.”
Miller also has a group largely willing to make sacrifices for the betterment of the team.
“For us, though, we have a good attitude right now with good leadership,” Miller said. “You know, it’s tough. We’ve got 11 guys. All are trying to get in the game and play more minutes, and when the game gets tight and you do some things, sometimes minutes go down, but for the most part we’ve been able to really hang tough and show no cracks in the armor in terms of team over individual.
“That’s probably our biggest challenge as a group is the return from Christmas. No outside distractions and try to find a way to stay collectively in the moment and find a way to finish the non-conference some way because when you get into conference play, every game is going to be so hard.”
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