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TOM DAVIS: Indiana gets defensive in latest win, now it has to again

Indiana's Robert Johnson celebrates during the second half of a game against Northwestern Sunday in Bloomington. (By The Associated Press)
Northwestern's Vic Law (4) is fouled by Indiana's Zach McRoberts during the first half of a game Sunday in Bloomington. (By The Associated Press)
Indiana University men's basketball coach Archie Miller argues a call during the first half of a game against Northwestern Sunday in Bloomington. (By The Associated Press)
Indiana's Aljami Durham (1) and Northwestern's Anthony Gaines (11) battle for a rebound during the first half of a game Sunday in Bloomington. (By The Associated Press)
Northwestern's Gavin Skelly (44) and Indiana's Justin Smith (3) go for the ball during the first half of a game Sunday in Bloomington. (By The Associated Press)

To Indiana’s credit, its Big Ten men’s basketball game with Northwestern Sunday in Bloomington wasn’t picturesque through the initial 3:57 of play, but the final 36:03 was about as good of a production as first-year Indiana coach Archie Miller could have dreamt up in his most vivid hallucinations.

Incredible defense is what got the Hoosiers their latest victory and more of the same will desperately be needed given Indiana’s upcoming schedule.

“I thought our guys really amped it up in the first half in terms of our intensity level defensively,” Miller said in a postgame press conference. “We were stagnant against the zone (in the first half) and not having (Indiana forward Juwan Morgan) for a good part of that first half obviously impacted our offense not being able to play through him a little bit.”

“But the defensive intensity in the first half was excellent.”

Make that for the entire game, not just the first half.

The Hoosiers (11-7, 4-2 Big Ten) turned in their best defensive performance of the entire season to shut down the Wildcats (11-8, 2-4) from the opening tip, and with four of the next six games coming against teams that are either tied with Indiana (the Hoosiers are in a three-way tie for second place in the conference) or ahead of them (including unbeaten Purdue and Ohio State), playing with any less effort and execution will more than likely result in a defeat.

The Hoosiers opened Sunday’s game with three turnovers, as many missed shots, no makes, and four combined fouls between Morgan and forward Zach McRoberts in 2:24. With the departure of Morgan to the bench, the Indiana offense went into a funk, as the Hoosiers missed 19 of their initial 26 shots. However, despite that pathetic performance offensively, Indiana still maintained an 18-15 lead with just over two minutes remaining in the opening period because it simply fought Northwestern on every possession.

“Just having a locked-in approach,” Indiana fifth-year guard Josh Newkirk said of his team’s defensive performance. “All five guys (were) talking and staying in the gaps and just finishing the play off with a rebound. I think that’s the biggest thing, just everybody talking, staying connected, and just putting forth a better effort.”

The Wildcats made just 24 percent of their shots in the first half and 26.8 percent for the game. In addition, the Indiana ball pressure forced Northwestern into 11 first-half turnovers and 17 for the game.

It was the first time that Indiana had limited an opponent to less than 33.9 percent shooting this season and 38.5 percent within league play.

“I think on the defensive end it’s probably been our best game thus far,” Indiana senior guard Robert Johnson said. “And I think if we can build on that and continue to tighten a couple of things up on the offensive side, we’ll be in a good spot.”

Indiana will need to do that.

The Hoosiers venture to Michigan State Friday (7 p.m., FS1) before hosting Maryland (Jan. 22) and traveling to Illinois (Jan. 24). But then the schedule gets really difficult.

The Hoosiers play three games in one week that involve home games with Purdue and Michigan State, with a road game at Ohio State mixed in between.

“It was a really good win for our team,” Miller said of Sunday, “and I’m excited for them. We have another week here to work a little bit before we play again.”

Indiana has won five of its last six games, but could very easily drop four of its next six without consistently good effort and execution at both ends of the court. And consistency has been an issue with this team.

Following a terrible (in every way imaginable, but mostly effort) outing at Wisconsin, the Hoosiers did play well at both ends at Minnesota. However, Penn State made half of its shots before Sunday’s tremendous outing.

Indiana hasn’t been capable of putting more than three good defensive games together in over a month.

However, Johnson said once the team lost starting center De’Ron Davis (following the Wisconsin game) to injury, the Hoosiers have altered their mindset.

“One of the things that we knew,” Johnson said, “once De’Ron went out, was we were going to be smaller so we’re going to have to pick up our intensity and our ball pressure. I think we’ve caused a little more turnovers, guys are putting that much more of an effort towards defense, and I think it’s been good for us.”

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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