TOM DAVIS: Indiana now showing consistency in its passion

Indiana forward Freddie McSwain Jr. (21) dunks the basketball near Indiana forward Juwan Morgan in the second half of a game against Michigan State Saturday in Bloomington. Michigan State won 63-60. (By The Associated Press)
Indiana University men's basketball coach Archie Miller talks to the officials in the first half of a game against Michigan State Saturday in Bloomington. (By The Associated Press)
Michigan State forward Jaren Jackson Jr., left, and Indiana guard Zach McRoberts fight for the basketball in the second half of a game Saturday in Bloomington. Michigan State won 63-60. (By The Associated Press)

It didn’t happen overnight.

In fact, it didn’t happen as quickly as the Indiana men’s basketball fans (or media covering the Hoosiers) had anticipated or wanted. But make no mistake about it, first-year coach Archie Miller is beginning to put his stamp on the Hoosier program and it has to be one that the Hoosier Nation (as well as the media) can greatly appreciate.

For the seventh time in the past nine games, Miller’s team put forth a really impressive effort, regardless of the outcome, which constitutes a very, very positive trend in my mind.

The Hoosiers (12-12, 5-7 Big Ten) battled Michigan State (21-3, 9-2) until the final minute Saturday at Assembly Hall before falling 63-60, which is a vast improvement from its first game with the fourth-ranked team in the country a couple of weeks earlier.

“I’ve had some incredible wins and disappointing losses over my career,” veteran Spartan coach Tom Izzo said afterwards, “and I’ve had a few wins that I didn’t feel very good about.

“Sometimes we turn the ball over a zillion times, like at Michigan with 26 points off turnovers to our seven. That bothers you. Sometimes back in the day you’d shoot 20 percent from the field, and that bothers you. But very seldom does one of our teams get out-worked or out-hustled the way Indiana did it.”

Indiana will travel to Rutgers (12-13, 2-10) Monday at 7 p.m. (BTN).

I’d write that this is the same Indiana team that was inconsistent with its effort and execution throughout the first 15 games of this season, but that wouldn’t be accurate. For anyone watching the Hoosiers of late, it is clear that these players have evolved into a far more consistent and cohesive unit over the past month.

This is NOT the same team that sleep-walked through losing to a bad Wisconsin team in early January.

Or got embarrassed by both Fort Wayne and Indiana State. In Bloomington.

Or couldn’t execute at Louisville in the second half or at Michigan in the first.

“Credit our guys,” Miller said. “I thought they really fought hard and played hard.”

No, credit to Miller. This type of effort and consistency was precisely what the Hoosier fans (and media) thought was going to be evident in November under the new coach. But, better late than never.

“We’re getting, especially against some really good teams right now,” Miller continued, “the last two to three minutes of just having to find a way to make a couple of plays. That’s what teams who know how to win do, teams like Michigan State and Purdue. With two minutes on the line they know they’re going to win.”

Baby steps, coach. Baby steps.

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The fact that the Hoosiers are now consistently playing hard is a great accomplishment.

With this size- and skill-challenged group, I’ll take consistent effort and be happy with it for now.

We can all criticize the execution and intellect at times (turnovers and free throws at Illinois, for example), but the passion for representing this program has been very apparent through the aforementioned stretch of play, and THAT can not be questioned.

“In East Lansing, they punked us,” Indiana forward Juwan Howard said of the earlier 85-57 Spartan rout. “In a few words, that’s what happened. We came to this mindset, I know me (and fellow Hoosier players Freddie McSwain Jr., Collin Hartman, and Justin Smith), we talked amongst each other and we were, like ‘This can’t happen.'”

It certainly didn’t “happen” Saturday.

What the Hoosiers did was by far the most impressive feat of the 2017-18 season.

Indiana completely manhandled a vastly superior, lengthier, stronger and more physical roster in Michigan State to historic proportions.

By clobbering the Spartans 53-29 on the glass (including 25-3 at the offensive end), the Hoosiers gave Michigan State its worst butt-kicking – physically, if not on the scoreboard – in over two decades, which was Izzo’s assessment, not mine.

“The 25-3 difference on offensive rebounds,” Izzo said, “is an insult to me, my players, and anybody who ever played here. I was very disappointed in that.”

Indiana has performed well at times throughout this season.

It battled against then top-ranked Duke well.

The Hoosiers fought back to beat a nationally-ranked Notre Dame team in overtime.

But each impressive outing was followed by a poor one.

Indiana fans – and Miller, for that matter – really never knew what to expect from game to game. However, adequate effort has been a constant – even in defeats – over the past month and all within the Indiana program deserve kudos for such.

Miller is recruiting well and the holes in this roster (size, skill, and intellect) can all improve in the off-season. But caring has to be a constant, and these guys are all showing that, under Miller, it now is.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Tom Davis at Tdavis@news-sentinel.com.

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