Indiana was in a world of trouble on Sunday.
Just as afternoon was turning into evening, the Hoosiers’ hopes of a Big Ten Tournament double-bye were fading away like the sun falling over the horizon. Plummeting, it seemed.
Michigan was on a 34-11 run, and IU looked helpless when it came to stopping the Wolverines’ scoring barrage.
After Michigan had made 12 of their last 14 shots, a whistle blew. And things went from bad, to worse.
Trey Galloway, Indiana’s best perimeter defender, and seemingly their only hope of slowing down Michigan star Kobe Bufkin, picked up his fourth foul with 14:17 left in the second half.
There was no way around it, Galloway had to come out of the game.
The instinctual choice to replace Galloway was former top-30 guard Tamar Bates.
While he’s been an inconsistent defender at best, Bates has shown flashes of a volume scorer. He’s had six games this season in double figures, and four games with 17 or more points.
In what was quickly becoming a shootout on Senior Day in Bloomington, a little scoring pop might come in handy.
But that Tamar Bates hadn’t been seen in weeks.
Coming into Sunday, Bates hadn’t scored at all in four of the last six games, and he hadn’t made more than one shot from the field in nine straight contests.
Even in the first half against Michigan, Bates continued to struggle. He missed all three of his shots, and threw an errant pass to Galloway.
After earning a starting role in December, Bates’ minutes were in rapid decline. He barely saw the floor in the second half of a few games, as heat checks off the bench went up in smoke.
The idea that Bates would be the answer as IU took on water in the second half against Michigan at this point seemed highly unlikely.
Woodson’s staff asked who he wanted to put in for Galloway.
Just a day earlier the program announced former starting guard Xavier Johnson was done for the season, so he wasn’t an option. Jordan Geronimo was dressed but seemingly not available coming off an injury. Freshman guard C.J. Gunn was struggling too.
The second year head coach knew he really only had one choice.
“They came to me and said, ‘Who are you going with,'” Woodson said. “Well, I’ve got to go with the next senior guy. I can’t rely on freshmen to bail us out. You know, Tamar has had some big games for us, especially here in this building.”
Bates indeed has has some massive games inside Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, including a 17-point outburst against Michigan State in January.
Maybe he could find some of that old magic?
Things got worse.
Bates picked up a foul. And then Bufkin hit a driving layup as he took Bates all the way to the rim. That made 17 points for the silky smooth Wolverine lefty. Michigan extended its run to 39-13 and enjoyed its largest lead of the game, 54-42 with just over 12 minutes remaining.
Time for another round of somber Senior Day speeches, or so it seemed.
And then suddenly out of nowhere, with Michigan in a zone and Trayce Jackson-Davis drawing plenty of attention in the high post, Bates was open on the wing with space to shoot.
Despite his prolonged struggles, one thing Bates had not become was a reluctant shooter.
Bates made his first 3-pointer in a month. And the Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall crowd roared back to life. They knew what we all knew — Indiana is a better team when Bates is making threes. And with Galloway out, Bates could give IU a chance.
Bufkin, who in many ways has become the player many thought Bates might be, only made one more shot from the field the rest of the game, and that came on one of the rare possessions when Bates wasn’t guarding him.
For all of Bates’ struggles of late as a scorer, it has been his lapses on the defensive end that have limited his opportunities going back to last season.
But at least on one early evening in Bloomington, it all started to come together for the Kansas City, Kan. product.
“I thought Tamar did a tremendous job in terms of trying to keep him (Bufkin) in front and making him make tough shots, and we are going to need that the rest of the way (from Bates),” Woodson said.
With Bufkin in check, Indiana climbed all the way back to a one-point deficit.
But then Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson scored on an and-one to stretch the lead back to four. Galloway fouled out on the play.
It would be Bates the rest of the way.
The clock ticked under six minutes, and Indiana needed another boost.
This time Michigan doubled Jackson-Davis on the block. He kicked it out to Jalen Hood-Schifino on the strong side, and Bates was open and waiting at the top of the key.
This time Bates backpedaled with a confident swagger.
Is that Bates back?
With Johnson out for good and no one else in the backcourt Woodson is comfortable with, it seems Indiana’s postseason fortunes may rise or fall with Bates getting his groove back.
The good news for Bates is that he won’t face a true road environment the rest of the season. That’s something he has to solve as an upperclassman, because he wasn’t good away from home as a freshman or sophomore.
In 12 true road games this year he made just 20 percent of his shots and had as many turnovers as he had assists.
Of course he won’t be playing in the comforts of home anymore this season either, and that might be okay.
In Indiana’s two neutral court games this season, Bates averaged 10 points and shot 50 percent from the field.
That kind of production would provide a major boost to an otherwise razor thin Indiana backcourt.
How will he play in Chicago and the NCAA Tournament?
Woodson isn’t sure about that, of course. But he knows the Bates he saw on Sunday gives IU a weapon that can help him win in March.
And Bates earned the confidence of his head coach on Sunday.
“He earned his stripes tonight,” Woodson said.
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