TOM DAVIS: Indiana basketball fans wanted hope, they now have it
It’s not like Archie Miller tried to mislead anyone as he entered his first season in guiding the Indiana men’s basketball program. The guy has been brutally honest to a fault.
He’s called his team soft (it was), and he’s told anyone that would listen that building this program to where it can successfully – and consistently – defend and take care of the basketball, Hoosier staples for decades, would take time.
“We’re going through some growing pains as much as anything,” Miller said recently. “I think we’ll get better because we’re going to get more experience playing together. We’re going to get more games under our belt.”
The coach knows what he’s talking about and that showed on Sunday.
Indiana played ugly basketball for 22 minutes Sunday in its game against South Florida at Assembly Hall, really ugly, the kind of ugly basketball that has made the Hoosier Nation nauseous for too long. But as Miller has repeatedly reminded everyone, it will get better. Eventually.
It finally did at the 17:50 mark of the second half against the Bulls.
Indiana trailed at that point 39-35 and had done a poor job at both ends of the floor.
There were missed shots, missed opportunities to rebound the ball, terrible defense, and passes that are attempted only in Saturday morning ‘biddy-ball.’
And then suddenly, miraculously, all of that ineptitude came to a screeching halt.
“It feels funny when you turn the ball over,” Miller said. “If you don’t turn the ball over, it’s amazing how many shots you get and how many more free throw attempts you get.”
Over a 9:21 stretch, Indiana played some of its best basketball that this program has played in a long time; as it tore off on a 19-5 run that put the game away. It was a collective effort, a number of guys contributed in various ways, but it was led by junior forward Juwan Morgan.
“He was fantastic,” Miller said without an ounce of hyperbole.
What did Morgan do during that stretch?
Everything. At both ends.
In that critical span, the 6-foot-7 athlete brought an unreal amount of energy to the Hoosiers and he scored eight points, grabbed three offensive rebounds, had a block and a steal, and this may have been his most impressive action: he drew three fouls with his aggressiveness and hit all six free throws.
He was, indeed, “fantastic.”
“It was about playing hard,” Miller continued in his effusive praise of Morgan. “I thought he played hard on both ends of the floor.”
Every one of the 11,629 fans in Bloomington KNEW that Morgan had “played hard on both ends of the floor.”
His activity proved contagious, as sophomore center De’Ron Davis (seven points and three rebounds during the stretch), freshman guard Al Durham (two points, three rebounds), and Robert Johnson (an assist, a block and a lay-up) each contributed to the decisive run, as did freshman Justin Smith and sophomore guard Devonte Green.
Indiana was a true “team” that got activity and energy from everyone.
The Hoosiers defended, they worked hard, they played smart and they really, really shared the ball well. The ball movement was fast and furious and beautiful.
“It was a deal where we had to keep grinding away,” Miller said, “figuring it out.”
Indiana limited South Florida to 24 percent shooting in the second half and for the first time all season, it really defended the 3-point line (29 percent for the Bulls).
The Hoosiers blocked an amazing nine shots and took the Bulls off the dribble enough to hold a 25-17 free throw advantage.
And get this; Indiana had just two turnovers in the second half. If that doesn’t get a Hoosier fan giddy, nothing will.
“The turnovers,” Miller pondered, “we just continue to try and nip it in the bud.”
No one, Miller included, is making claims that this building project is now complete. The Hoosiers continue to learn Miller’s systems and expectations and they lack depth in the post. Indiana still has its issues and those will be prevalent throughout this season. However, if the fans throughout this state were watching for some sign of hope that this program would be capable of playing the type of basketball that not only is successful, but also aesthetically pleasing, Miller’s team gave it to them for nearly 18 minutes.
Yes, this team will probably get rolled by Duke later this month. But also, yes, Indiana will be able to have some level of impact on the Big Ten race THIS season.
“We were able to score a little bit because we didn’t turn it over as much,” Miller said. “That’s the big thing: lack of turnovers and quality play on offense; and then defensively, being able to finish possessions with great 50-50 plays and great effort.”
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.