4 things we learned from IU’s win over Wisconsin

1. Race Thompson demonstrated what IU has been missing.

For so much of his college career, Ethan Happ has tortured Indiana.

He is, of course, one of the nation’s best big men, a 6-foot-10 senior point center who is willing and able to post up nearly anywhere inside the arc and give opponents fits in the process. The Hoosiers are by no means alone in their seasonal struggles against Happ.

During Tuesday’s 75-73 double-overtime win over Wisconsin, Indiana seemed to discover a solution to the Happ matchup. It was Thompson, the redshirt freshman forward who has missed the bulk of his second collegiate season due to a concussion suffered during a mid-November practice.

As a young player with a reputation for approaching post play with equal parts physicality and aggression, Thompson played to his strengths against Happ, frustrating the Badgers’ star for a spell during the first half. Happ was 4-for-6 from the field with eight points before Thompson checked in at the 9:39 mark of the first half. During a six-minute stretch with Thompson guarding him late in the period, Happ went 0-for-3 from the floor with a turnover.

Thompson ended up playing 21 minutes and grabbing seven rebounds.

Happ, of course, got his points. He finished with 23, but Thompson and company made sure they didn’t necessarily come easy.

“He’s got more physicality than we’re accustomed to,” IU coach Archie Miller said of Thompson. “He can bang. He can mix it up a little bit. The other thing is he’s a really good rebounder per minute. He’s rebounding the ball on both ends of the floor for us in his minutes that he’s given. He’s been able to do that. So that’s a big step for him to come in.”

This was only Thompson’s fourth collegiate game, and his play served as a reminder of what Indiana lost when he suffered a severe concussion days before the Marquette game in mid-November.

Although his in-game experience has been limited, Thompson has shown glimpses behind the scenes of his potential to help this team. Practicing against quality big men like Juwan Morgan and De’Ron Davis has clearly helped prepare Thompson for Big Ten post battles, but there’s no simulating the matchup he found himself in on Tuesday.

Against a likely All-American, Thompson didn’t back down. In fact, he illustrated just how valuable his style could be both down the stretch this season and in the years to come.

“I kept calm because of my teammates,” Thompson said. “I know they have faith in me. They keep telling me I’m good, like, ‘You got this. This is what we do for a living.’ There was no reason for me to be nervous or nothing. That’s what we do. I think I just played to my strengths and did what I had to do.”

2. Defensively, Indiana appears reinvigorated.

Since its embarrassing loss at Minnesota on Feb. 16, IU seems to have recommitted to its principles, particularly on the defensive end.

The Wisconsin win marked the second time in the last three games that Indiana has held its opponent under a point per possession. As noted by Jerod Morris of the popular IU podcast Assembly Call, Indiana’s adjusted defensive efficiency ranks sixth nationally across its past three games. It is a small sample size, to be sure, but it’s also further evidence of an IU team that has buckled down and strived to accentuate its best qualities.

For this Indiana team to have a chance to win, it has to grind through games and pull opposing teams into the mud with it.

Against Wisconsin, the Hoosiers accomplished that goal.

“Our toughness on the ball has been excellent,” Miller said. “Our ability to get over screens and be there on the catch and our ability to chase shooters right now is as good as it’s been all year. So we’re eliminating some of the easy ones that we were giving up.”

3. Justin Smith deserves credit for his approach.

The sophomore wasn’t supposed to start Tuesday’s game.

But he did, returning to the lineup due to an illness that prevented De’Ron Davis from taking the floor at tipoff. Smith responded with a solid effort, operating as the better version of himself in a situation where IU could afford nothing less.

Smith finished with 12 points and six rebounds before fouling out on a questionable call early in the first overtime period. He had some lapses on both ends and his play was far from perfect, but Tuesday was a positive sign from the sophomore.

It came four days after he was benched for the final 25 minutes of IU’s overtime loss at Iowa, where Smith came off the bench for the third straight game and struggled to assert himself in meaningful ways.

Smith’s solid play early in regulation against Wisconsin played a role in IU building traction. All told, the Hoosiers enjoyed balanced play from the bulk of their contributing players, Smith included. The ability to stack several solid efforts, one after the other inside of Tuesday’s game, allowed Indiana to build an early lead and maintain a suitable pace for much of the night.

4. The Hoosiers seem to be flirting with the bubble again.

By beating No. 19 Wisconsin, Indiana earned its fifth Quadrant 1 win of the season and its third victory over a ranked opponent.

It’s not enough to vault IU back into the NCAA Tournament picture, but there’s at least a visible path back to the postseason conversation, however murky.

According to ESPN’s Bracketology, none of analyst Joe Lunardi’s last four teams in the NCAA Tournament — Seton Hall, Temple, Clemson and Utah State — have more than three Quadrant 1 victories. Indiana will have an opportunity for a sixth Quad 1 win on Saturday, when the Hoosiers host No. 6 Michigan State at noon.

To be clear, Indiana would have a lot of work to do to during the final week of the regular season and at next month’s Big Ten Tournament to reenter the NCAA Tournament picture. Right now, IU’s best hope for a postseason is through a National Invitation Tournament bid.

But the Wisconsin win shows that Indiana still has something to play for. A win over Michigan State would further enhance the possibilities.

One comment

  1. It is my opinion that RT’s performance (defense and rebounding) against Wisconsin was the difference between IU winning that game and IU losing. His performance validates why a few of us said that he needed to play significant minutes once he was fully recovered. I don’t think anyone believes RT is ready to be a starter (his offense needs to improve), but he should be the first Big off the bench when either DD or JM needs to come out, or when the opposing Big’s strength/size needs to be neutralized in the paint. I am happy for the young man. He’s another great example of someone who has overcome adversity.

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