The Indiana men’s basketball program faced the disappointment of not hearing their name called for the 2019 NCAA Tournament. But the show goes on. As part of the “first four out” of the big dance, the Hoosiers earned a No. 1 seed in the National Invitational Tournament. While the lights aren’t quite as bright in the NIT, the stories can be just as compelling. This is still Indiana basketball, and these are the Lessons From the NIT.
By the 33rd game of the season, there typically aren’t a lot of firsts.
This far into a campaign, you have typically seen that and done that — over and over.
Archie Miller has certainly seen his share of uninspiring first halves from this 2018-19 Indiana basketball team. In large part that’s what landed the Hoosiers in the NIT.
After suffering through a first half that Miller said he knew was coming on the heels of their exclusion from the NCAA Tournament, Indiana needed a spark. They needed a spark, or a disappointing season was about to quickly become an embarrassing one, ending at home with a loss to a team ranked No. 253 according to KenPom.
We’ve read opinions over the course of the season suggesting that Miller needs to get more technical fouls, both to influence the officiating and to provide a spark to his team.
While those opinions are likely more a byproduct of fond memories of the “Bobby” days rather than anything based in reality, at least on this night — they appear to have been right. And given the state of his team, Miller likely knew something extra was needed.
With one second remaining in the first half, Miller had seen enough.
The second year Hoosier head coach watched as freshman point guard Rob Phinisee fell to the ground and got stepped on during a fast break in the waning seconds of the first half. On the ensuing play, St. Francis drew a foul call on what appeared to be a similar situation heading in the other direction.
We don’t know what Miller said, but he drew a technical foul for arguing with the officials on the disparity in how those last two plays were called. It was his first of the season — but it was only the beginning for the second year head coach.
That technical energized the crowd and might have gotten his team’s attention, but there was much more work to be done.
St. Francis proceeded to make four consecutive free throws with that one second still on the clock.
Collapses of Indiana’s NIT past started to come to the front of the mind as Miller stormed off the court with his team down 40-34 to the Red Flash.
Before the game the Hoosier head man had warned us — and he warned his team.
“I told the guys, there’s two types of teams in post-season play: ones that are excited to keep playing, and whether it be down or out, not as excited, these teams get eliminated very fast,” Miller said leading up to the St. Francis game.
Much like Indiana in the 2017 NIT against Georgia Tech and in 2005 against Vanderbilt, these 2019 Hoosiers appeared destined, perhaps willingly, to get eliminated very fast.
Despite the warnings, there we were. Another flawed team, floundering in the NIT, ready to mail it in and get on with the postseason.
But Miller was just getting warmed up. And he had help.
When you think of assistant coach Ed Schilling, a scathing tirade is not what typically comes to mind. Usually found with a smile on his face, Schilling is perhaps best known for his skills development and recruiting prowess.
But these Hoosiers needed a spark. No, they needed a shock. And Schilling was just the man to do it.
While the details of what exactly Schilling said are scant, it is clear that he was quite animated in the halftime locker room. Senior co-captain Juwan Morgan provided insight —
“Definitely, you don’t see it often,” Morgan said in reference to Schilling. “I’ve only seen it once. It was in the beginning of the year. That really opened some guys eyes to how serious this is. Regardless if it’s the NCAA or NIT. It made us realize that this game is just as important as any other game. I think that’s what got the guys going in the second half.”
Not to be outdone, Miller took his turn addressing the team. And we couldn’t share the details of what he said even if we had them —
“A lot of things I can’t say right now, I promise you that,” Miller said when quizzed on his halftime theatrics.
Not only did Miller warn us that first half was possible, he sensed it was likely based on the mood of his team.
“It was a very, very poor performance in the first half and I knew it was coming,” Miller said. “I mean, you can sense the attitude of your team. You can always sense the vibe that’s going around, and I didn’t feel that we had four or five guys, you know, completely locked in and it showed.”
A less invested coaching staff might have just rolled with it and let the season mercifully come to an end. Instead, despite it being “just the NIT”, Miller and his staff pulled out all the stops.
And here’s the thing. It might not have mattered one bit if the team wasn’t still engaged, still invested, and still bought in.
But boy were they.
Indiana outscored St. Francis 55-32 in the second half. They won the rebounding battle 23-12. They won the turnover margin 7-3. They held St. Francis to 31% from the field while shooting 64% themselves.
In part due to the sage advice of a still invested senior co-captain Zach McRoberts, Indiana emphasized playing through the post, where the Red Flash had no one that could handle Morgan. Indiana outscored St. Francis in the paint 38-4 in the second half.
Complete domination, and completely impossible if a coaching staff is not still deeply invested, and a team is not still buying what they are selling.
Indiana’s players learned something about themselves on Tuesday night, about what it means to be a competitor and want something more than your opponent.
They learned something that prior editions of Indiana basketball in the NIT could not.
Yes, they learned something, and their still invested coaching staff led them to it.
These are real games, real competition, and real opportunities to build a culture.
While we’ve seen the lows of Indiana at the NIT, we’ve also seen the highs. Like in 1979 and 1985, when Indiana made it to the NIT finals at Madison Square Garden. Each time the Hoosiers won a national title two years later.
We might just look back on these days as the foundation of something special.
And these are the lessons from the NIT.
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