Hoosiers hope Duke loss can be turning point

Alan Henderson summed it up appropriately.

“That’s just how the game goes sometimes,” Henderson tweeted after Indiana’s 90-69 loss at Duke on Tuesday night.

He would know.

Henderson was a freshman on the 1991-92 Indiana team that started its season on the wrong end of a 15-point drubbing at the hands of UCLA in the Hall of Fame Tipoff Classic.

Not much went well for IU on that particular November night in 1991. Calbert Cheaney struggled from the field, he and Eric Anderson both navigated early foul trouble, and a slew of Indiana turnovers, including eight in the last nine minutes, only worsened things en route to IU’s 87-72 loss to UCLA.

As frustrating as that season-opening defeat felt 27 years ago, the way that Indiana responded became a point of pride for the Hoosiers. The ’92 team found redemption by blowing out the Bruins in their NCAA Tournament rematch to earn a trip to that season’s Final Four, completing a gradual building process that began not long after that initial loss to UCLA.

“We learned a lot from that and kept getting better and better,” former Hoosier Matt Nover said at a recent team reunion. “By (March), we were really hitting on all cylinders.”

This year’s IU team will try to do the same.

The Hoosiers — or, at least, senior forward Juwan Morgan — also have recent experience to draw from. After it was dispatched with a 20-point loss in the 2015 ACC/Big Ten Challenge at Duke, Indiana turned around and won its next 12 games, then went on to claim the outright Big Ten title.

Although that team and the current one don’t have exact parallels, these Hoosiers will also try to take an ugly, early-season loss and turn it into something that galvanizes the group moving forward. That’s Indiana’s immediate objective as it continues with its current five-game stretch against high-major opponents.

“I told the guys after the game, this is an opportunity right now,” Miller said. “Whatever it is, Nov. 27, you look back on hopefully at some point in time and say ‘Remember that night? We’ve come a long way.'”

As ugly as Tuesday’s performance was, the loss itself doesn’t hurt Indiana. IU had plenty to gain and little to lose by taking on third-ranked Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The manner of defeat may sting an IU team that left the arena with its tail between its legs, but there won’t be a lasting resume penalty for falling to arguably the nation’s most athletic and talented team.

On the other hand, there are some concerning themes starting to emerge with Indiana.

Inside each of IU’s losses this month, which includes a one-point decision at Arkansas last week, the Hoosiers have been careless with the ball. They’ve seen their most important player, Juwan Morgan, struggle with early foul trouble. And they’re still trying to develop chemistry inside of mix-and-match rotations that have been decimated by injuries.

Free throws, too, remain a curious weak spot.

“We have to take a step back and look and see if we can put some guys in some better positions,” Miller said. “Thats on us as a staff. As a coach, you have to put your guys in better positions to be successful. We have to do that moving forward. Our last three to four games, our offense has hurt us. Our offense has got to become a strength for us. As we continue to improve and get out of November here, we’re going to play against good teams so we have to get better.”

That, alone, may make what IU did in 2015 difficult to replicate.

After Indiana’s blowout loss at Duke three years ago — which followed a poor showing a the Maui Invitational a week prior — the Hoosiers had the benefit of finding their legs with games against Morehead State, IPFW and McNeese State.

There will be no friendly buildup to January this time around.

Tuesday’s game was the first of five in a row against teams rated inside the top 60 nationally by advanced statistics web site KenPom.com.

The Hoosiers continue their run with Saturday afternoon’s Big Ten opener against Northwestern at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, then turn around and travel to Penn State for a Tuesday night tip-off in State College, Pa. Games against Louisville (in Bloomington) and Butler (in Indianapolis) will follow.

For a banged up squad, albeit one that appears to be slowly becoming healthier, it’s unforgiving terrain for working out kinks and smoothing the rough edges that a month’s worth of short-handed practices has created.

The trip to Duke offered Indiana an opportunity to measure itself against the nation’s best. By the end of the outing, the Hoosiers saw just how far they have to go.

IU is still a team with great potential, and better play across the next two games will help the Hoosiers get off to a strong start in a wide-open Big Ten. But as Tuesday illustrated, actually realizing that great potential is going to take some work.

“We have a group that has to continue to get back to work, back to practice,” Miller said. “We have a Big Ten home opener on Saturday and that’s what we’re pushing for right now.”

Ultimately, Indiana’s goal will be able to author the kind of run that allows the Hoosiers to look back on Tuesday night and reflect over how much development took shape.

That’s what the 2015-16 team was able to do — and the 1991-92 team, too.

“We have some work to do,” Henderson said. “So let’s work!”