Go B1G or go home for Indiana

Archie Miller wanted to puke.

He wasn’t dealing with a flu bug, or even managing a seasonal cold. No, the Indiana coach was watching film of last month’s narrow loss to Ohio State and retching at the scenes replaying on the screen in front of him.

“The first time we played Ohio State, we watched the film and I think I threw up three times during the film session,” Miller said. “It was probably one of the worst games that I’ve ever been a part of.”

That Feb. 10 tilt, a 55-52 Buckeyes victory, was a tough and physical affair, one that sent the Hoosiers hurtling toward their season’s nadir. They failed on both ends of the court in key, late-game moments that afternoon, and put forth one of their worst offensive performances of the season.

A full month has passed since that loss, and Indiana finds itself in a much different place. So does Ohio State.

The No. 9 seed Hoosiers are playing their best basketball of the season entering today’s Big Ten Tournament showdown with the eighth-seeded Buckeyes, who enter the postseason on a three-game losing skid. With an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament potentially up for grabs, Miller’s bunch is looking at the rematch as another chance to atone for the mid-winter slump that nearly derailed their season.

“We’ve been playing with our backs against the wall,” junior forward De’Ron Davis said. “I feel like we’re not really focused on if any other teams have wins or losses or what their schedule is or what they need to do to get to the tournament. I feel like this whole week and the last two weeks, we’ve just been focused on us and how hard we go in practice and how hard we play.”

That approach has paid off for Indiana, which closed the regular season with four consecutive wins, including two over ranked opponents (No. 19 Wisconsin and No. 6 Michigan State). The past two weeks have rejuvenated IU’s NCAA Tournament hopes, propping up a resume that desperately needed a late-season update.

Now, the Hoosiers have a path to the big dance, a possibility that seemed unlikely immediately after last month’s loss to Ohio State. At the time, that meeting with the Buckeyes seemed to be a measurement for both teams’ NCAA Tournament odds. It was a matchup between comparable teams in the Big Ten standings, and a home game that Indiana really needed to win.

The Hoosiers, of course, weren’t able to follow through, crumbling in the final moments of regulation. First, there was a turnover out of back-to-back timeouts. Then, on the game-winning basket, Ohio State ran a well-executed screen and roll for Andre Wesson, who lost his defender, Justin Smith, when Smith hedged too hard and got burned.

Wherever you looked inside of that game, Indiana did itself no favors. The Hoosiers spotted the Buckeyes an 11-2 lead in the first five minutes, they failed to find adequate help for Juwan Morgan, who went merely 1-for-7 from the field and posted a season-low three points against consistent double teams, and they managed merely .88 points per possession in what was the latest in a string of poorly executed offensive efforts during the heart of Big Ten season.

The following weekend, Indiana went to Minnesota and hit rock bottom with an embarrassing 84-63 loss to the Gophers. Losing to the Buckeyes was an omen of what was to come.

Now, today’s rematch could turn into a play-in game for the NCAA Tournament.

“They chose in our first game to pack the paint, defend certain guys around the post and I think they did a good job of it,” Miller said. “We just had a really hard time scoring the ball in that game. We ended up making couple shots late which gave us a little room but give them credit, they finished the game better than we did. For us, we have to be a lot better defensively because we haven’t been in our last couple games. We are going to have be better in a couple areas as we go to Chicago and focus on ourselves.

“The big thing for us is, when we play a team like Ohio State, you’re going to have to be a tough-minded group, not give up second chance shots and you can’t get rattled through the course of the game. We’re going to have to look at Game 1 and really dig in.”

If anything, Miller takes solace in his belief that Indiana is currently a much different team than the version of itself that lost to the Buckeyes last month. Ohio State is different, too, having lost three in a row without suspended forward Kaleb Wesson, who will return to the lineup against Indiana.

For one, IU is healthier, with Davis occupying meaningful minutes off the bench, and reserve forward Race Thompson appearing primed for a situational role.

Indiana’s contributing cast is also in top form, with point guard Rob Phinisee fully returned from his concussion, and Devonte Green and Justin Smith executing their supporting roles as well as they have in their college careers.

As important as anything, the Hoosiers are playing with confidence for the first time in months. They have defeated teams ahead of them in the Big Ten hierarchy (Wisconsin and Michigan State) with the same kind of toughness they demonstrated while jumping out to a 12-2 start in December. They’re also dispatching teams lower than them in the conference ledger (Illinois and Rutgers) with relative ease.

Finally — and for the first time all year — Miller is seeing the IU team he thought he’d have entering the year.

“Every coach sits down at the beginning of the season and says to themselves, ‘Do we have the ability to do A-B-C?” Miller said. “For us, it was going to be a mesh of a lot of new guys, five freshmen, a grad transfer, second-year returners, and two seniors and how are we going to mesh these guys. I think at the front end we saw a good team that we could play a lot different combinations with but that got derailed with injuries and we haven’t been able to find that chemistry.

“Now, we have become a deeper team here as of late and we’ve had some more guys get in the game which helps with morale. Without question if you’ve watched us play in the last couple of weeks you would see a good team who is playing hard. At the end of the year that’s all you hope for, making the best out of everything, turning a negative into a positive.”

Yet, for as well as IU has played in recent weeks, it won’t mean much if the Hoosiers don’t show up in Chicago.

Indiana needs to at least beat Ohio State — a fellow bubble team — to remain in the NCAA Tournament discussion. The winner of today’s game will face top-seeded Michigan State on Friday afternoon, and for the Hoosiers, a potential third victory over the Spartans could seal their tournament hopes once and for all.

But St. Mary’s win over Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference Tournament championship on Tuesday night complicated things for bubble teams such as Indiana. With their victory, the Gaels stole a bid from one of the teams hoping to snatch one of the final spots in the field. So for the Hoosiers, one win this week might not be enough to secure a spot in the dance.

Or it might. At this point, with other bid thieves still alive in various conference tournaments, no one can be sure.

That’s why the Hoosiers say they aren’t paying close attention to the ever-evolving bracketology. They know that they need to win, a mission that starts with beating Ohio State in Thursday’s rematch.

“We hear people talking, and it’s all over social media,” Davis said. “But we don’t really pay attention to it. We just focus on what we’ve got to focus on and the next game and each war. Coach is just focused on the game plan and what we’ve got to do to beat Ohio State. That’s all really.”

4 comments

  1. I think we’re going to get into the tournament if we beat OSU, IF & ONLY IF there are no more mid major conference title upsets. Both have to happen.

    I don’t like our chances against Izzo the 3rd time. I don’t like our chances against anybody the 3rd time. We outworked them by luring them into complacency in the prior 2 matchups. Izzo won’t let it happen again.

    Bottom line is we don’t deserve to be IN if we can’t beat OSU, a true bubble team. We owe them big time.

    1. Agreed, if can’t beat another true bubble team at this point, don’t deserve to be in the ncaa’s. Key will be how well the supporting cast continues to play. If Smith and Green can continue to elevate their game with RP back to near full speed shouldn’t be a problem. Here’s the interesting thing about this season. We’re at the end of it and this team is just now coming together as a team due to all the injuries. We really don’t know and will never know what this team could have achieved this year. The hope is they are coming together at the right time and can play at their best now.

  2. You will know what this team is about after OSU game and after MSU game.
    I for one am calling IU vs MSU game even.

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