4 things we learned from IU’s win over Michigan State

1. Indiana is back in the NCAA Tournament discussion.

Even after losing 12 of 13 Big Ten games in the middle of the season, the Hoosiers have a path to the NCAA Tournament.

It’ll take some work, including wins in each of the final two regular season games against Illinois and Rutgers — followed by a win or two in the Big Ten Tournament — but IU has a shot to return to the dance for the first time since 2016.

The Hoosiers (15-14, 6-12) have six wins over Quadrant 1 opponents, the latest a 63-62 win over No. 6 Michigan State on Saturday. They also have the fourth-best strength of schedule in the country, according to KenPom.com, and zero losses outside Quadrant 2.

“We have a unique resume,” IU coach Archie Miller said. “Our schedule strength is off the charts. We have some big wins against really, really highly regarded teams, and if you take the name off the front, obviously you’re going to look at a stretch in the season that doesn’t look very good, but it’s all about how you finish.”

As The Athletic’s Brendan Quinn notes, five Big Ten teams have received at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament with sub-.500 records in the conference — Iowa (2005), Penn State (2001), Purdue (1999), Wisconsin (1994) and Indiana (1990).

For the Hoosiers, there’s still plenty of work to be done, and escaping Illinois with a win on Thursday will be a challenge. But at least for now, IU is hovering around the bubble again. That the Hoosiers have made that possible is a credit to a team that refused to collapse, even as the losses mounted.

“Our resume, at the end of the day, will speak for itself,” Miller said. “We have two more games. You have to control what you can, and that’s the only thing you’ve got to worry about right now. Then you have the Big Ten Tournament. … But we have to win. I mean, we have to win, period.”

2. Justin Smith played the game of his life.

There’s something about Michigan State that brings out the best in the IU sophomore.

Smith responded from a second-half benching at Iowa on Feb. 22 with two encouraging performances this week. He returned to the starting lineup on Tuesday against Wisconsin, subbing for an ill De’Ron Davis to give the Hoosiers quality minutes in their win over the Badgers.

Then, to close the week, Smith turned in a career-best effort against the Spartans, setting a new career high with 24 points.

Smith scored 13 of IU’s first 14 points, and helped Indiana topple Michigan State for a second time this season. Saturday’s win marks only the second time the Hoosiers have swept the season series with the Spartans since the 1990-91 season.

Smith had a key role in both victories, averaging 18.5 points and 7.0 rebounds against Michigan State this year. His career-high three 3-pointers were especially helpful on Saturday, giving the Hoosiers an early lift and stumping Michigan State coach Tom Izzo.

“I mean, I was due to hit some shots,” Smith said. “I hadn’t hit a couple in a while, and then once I got a couple going, my teammates kept giving me confidence, told me keep shooting it, and that’s what I did. I was able to make a couple.”

3. IU’s supporting cast is stepping up.

Juwan Morgan’s go-ahead putback with 1:46 to play was only his second field goal of the game. On a day when Morgan and top freshman Romeo Langford combined to go 6-for-22 from the field, the Hoosiers’ contributors played well in support.

Yes, Smith was excellent. Others were, too.

Rob Phinisee’s defense on Cassius Winston in the final seconds helped the Hoosiers secure the victory. It wasn’t the only moment Phinisee’s sticky defense was noticeable. He hung in and played tough against Winston, the likely Big Ten Player of the Year, who still finished with a double-double of 20 points and 11 assists.

“Coach was on me all week in practice,” Phinisee said. “So the big thing was ball screens, just fighting over, and the bigs did a good job sticking and helping plugging, so it was really a team effort.”

Devonte Green was also excellent during the second half, hitting three timely 3-pointers to keep Indiana on track. Green, like Smith, has played his best basketball of the season against Michigan State. His three 3s matched his Big Ten-season high, set on Feb. 2 in East Lansing. Between the two games, Green averaged 12.0 points off the bench.

In both games this week, the play of Hoosiers not named Morgan and Langford helped boost IU to a pair of impressive wins.

“The other guys, they stepped up today,” Miller said. “Devonte and obviously Justin had really big games. Devonte hit some really big shots for us in the game to keep us hanging around, hanging around. You know, some other guys obviously didn’t get as many minutes here today, but I just thought the way that Justin was playing, he was a guy that was going to be out there quite a bit today with the way he played.”

4. Indiana is once again winning with defense in key moments.

In total, it wasn’t a great defensive game for the Hoosiers. They looked soft and sluggish for stretches of Saturday’s contest — especially early — and allowed the Spartans to score 1.03 points per possession on the day.

But Indiana clamped down when it needed to most, holding Michigan State scoreless for the final 4:13 of regulation. The Spartans went 0-for-4 with a turnover during that stretch, failing to score after Matt McQuaid’s jumper put Michigan State ahead 62-56.

The Hoosiers also finished with 10 steals, their most since recording 10 at Rutgers on Jan. 30.

“We had to fight and hang in through some ugly times, especially in the first half,” Miller said. “I thought defensively we were much better in the second half, and then as about the 12-minute mark, the 8-minute mark started to come around, you could feel our guys have a different vibe about them just in terms of their energy level, and the last four minutes being able to get some key stops.”

4 comments

  1. Anybody watching Virginia game? Clinic on 3-point shooting. Something like 21 of 29. Crazy good.

  2. Is that young man from North Carolina(?)…(Guy?) involved? Jay Bilas involved in not telling the viewers where that one ‘guy’ with such pure shooting form is from?

  3. Been a while since we had a knock down three point shooter. It has been ‘fingers crossed’ for a while.

    So, I caught most of the second half of the New Albany/Jeffersonville sectional championship. What stuck with me was that, for the 12 minutes I saw, was that there was one turnover and no missed free throws.

    Pretty cool.

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