Indiana Basketball and the Season of Dreams, Nightmares, and Hope Reborn

Flashes of greatness show glimpses of what the Hoosiers could have achieved this year…and still might

By: Jesse

Juwan Morgan (13) and De’Ron Davis (20) celebrate the Hoosiers victory over Michigan State on March 2nd | Photo by: Bobby Goddin, Indy Star

Indiana Hoosiers basketball.

For some, those words are equivalent to “Christianity” or “Buddhism.” For some, Indiana basketball is religion.

A season like this one leads to a lot of lost souls.

The Hoosiers currently sit at 17-14 (8-12 Big Ten) entering the Big Ten tournament this Thursday, in a far better position today than they were when I began drafting this piece. They occupy the #9 seed and play #8 Ohio State in what could be an NCAA tournament elimination game. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi currently has Ohio State as one of his “Last Four In” in his current Bracketology projections, while Indiana is the first team in his “First Four Out” category. A win Thursday may not get the Hoosiers over the hump, but the season isn’t over yet.

But this season wasn’t supposed to be like this. This season was supposed to be far more productive. The Hoosiers were supposed to be contenders in the Big Ten, even if it was an outside shot. They were supposed to be a shoo-in for the NCAA tournament.

If you’ve read any college basketball posts on here, or if you know me personally, you’ll know that I’m a graduate of Indiana University. I love me some Hoosier basketball. And I’m as disappointed in the way this season has gone – at points – as much as anyone else. I’m also impressed with what this team has achieved, in a sense. But I’m also a realist, and I want to look at the whole season to find out how we got here today.

Let’s take a look at some major events from this season.

April 30th, 2018 – Romeo Langford commits

Romeo Langford affixes the IU cap to his head, committing to the Hoosiers | Photo by: Chris Howell (Herald-Times)

Coming off a 16-win season in his first as head coach, Archie Miller secured the best high school player in Indiana and a Top 10 recruit nationwide.

Romeo Langford decided to stay home.

Langford, whose recruitment seemingly had more twists and turns than an Indiana backroad, chose to stick with the Hoosiers over Kansas and Vanderbilt. Early on, it seemed that he would join Darius Garland and play at Vanderbilt for (likely) his only season in college basketball.

But in choosing to make his decision in front of a raucous crowd at New Albany High School, Romeo signaled to all Hoosier fans – despite faking for the Vanderbilt hat – that he was committed to helping Archie kickstart the program once again.

But this season hasn’t been exactly what anyone envisioned on that night in April, least of all Langford. Averaging 16.7 points per game, good for 6th in the Big Ten and most among freshmen in the conference, Romeo has been mostly as good as advertised. But the help hasn’t really been there outside of Juwan Morgan. We’ll get to that.

Langford is projected to be a lottery pick in this year’s NBA Draft, all but guaranteeing that he’ll be a one-and-done for the Hoosiers. While that has been much debated among Hoosier circles, it’s unlikely that he’ll return for a sophomore season, even with Trayce Jackson-Davis, Armaan Franklin, and potentially Keion Brooks Jr. coming in next year. Brooks will announce his destination this coming Friday, March 15th.

Let’s get into the peaks and valleys of the 2018-19 Indiana Hoosiers.

November 14th, 2018 – A home thrashing of a ranked team

BLOOMINGTON, IN – NOVEMBER 14: Juwan Morgan #13 of the Indiana Hoosiers celebrates a basket during a college basketball game against the Marquette Golden Eagles at the Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall on November 14, 2018 in Bloomington, Indiana. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

In the third game of the season, Indiana methodically took apart then-#24 Marquette, hanging 96 points on them and limiting the Golden Eagles to just 73.

It was one of those big, signature, non-conference home wins that Hoosier fans have become accustomed to year in and year out.

The Hoosier defense held Markus Howard to just 18 points that night. Romeo Langford led all scorers with 22 points, and one was one of five Hoosiers in double figures (Evan Fitzner – 16, Morgan – 13, Al Durham – 13, and Robert Phinisee – 12).

The season was off to a promising start. Until about two weeks ago, Marquette looked like a dark horse title contender. In fact, I wrote about them as such. Since then, they’ve gone 1-4. (My bad.)

But the Marquette win is one of Indiana’s many victories this season that are keeping them in the conversation, despite 14 losses and a losing record in conference play. Had the Hoosiers lost to Marquette and the rest of the season played out as it did, they wouldn’t be on the bubble.

Instead, on November 14th, the Hoosiers took a big step forward.

December 15th, 2018 – Juwan’s career high and Big Shot Rob

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – DECEMBER 15: Indiana Hoosiers guard Rob Phinisee (10) celebrates after hitting the game winning three pointer during the Crossroads Classic basketball game between the Butler Bulldogs and Indiana Hoosiers on December 15, 2018, at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, IN. (Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Indiana came into the Crossroads Classic with an 8-2 (2-0) record. The Hoosiers were coming off a huge 68-67 win over Louisville the week before, adding another Quadrant 1 win to their resume.

This game wasn’t pretty. The Hoosiers struggled mightily in the first half, and couldn’t find their momentum in the second. But they kept it close enough to give themselves a chance, much like the situation they’re in today.

Then Robert “Big Shot Rob” Phinisee happened.

To be fair, without Juwan Morgan, this game was way over. Morgan poured in a career-high 35 points and got the Hoosiers a basket seemingly every time they needed one. This should have been known as the “Juwan Morgan Game.”

But on the last possession, Archie Miller’s drawn-up play failed. Devonte Green couldn’t get it to Romeo Langford, who was option #1. He couldn’t find Morgan, who was option #2.

So Phinisee ran toward the ball, caught it with 1.7 seconds left, dribbled once to his left, and heaved a 25-footer at the buzzer.

Nothing but net.

Phinisee’s legend, which is sure to grow over the next three seasons, was born on December 15th.

The win over Butler, who was 7-2 entering the contest, looks far less impressive for the Hoosiers now. The Bulldogs finished in the basement of the Big East with a 16-15 record this season, and barring a miraculous (read: classic Butler) run through the conference tournament, their season will end without an NCAA bid.

But for Indiana? The win gave them momentum in closing out the non-conference schedule over Christmas Break, and they kept it rolling with a home victory over Illinois in the first game of the new year.

That pushed them to 12-2 (3-0 Big Ten) with a showdown looming against #2 Michigan in Ann Arbor.

January 6th, 2019 – The freefall begins

ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN – JANUARY 06: Justin Smith #3 of the Indiana Hoosiers dunks over Ignas Brazdeikis #13 of the Michigan Wolverines during the first half at Crisler Arena on January 06, 2019 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Michigan won the game 74-63. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

The #21 Hoosiers never found their footing in the Crisler Center, dropping the contest to the #2 Wolverines 74-63. The picture above was a rare highlight for the Hoosiers in the game.

Morgan scored 25 points and snagged 8 rebounds, while Langford added 17 points. Nobody else reached double figures.

It was a tough loss against a very talented Michigan team (then 15-0 overall and 4-0 in the Big Ten), but looking back, it signaled something else that nobody ever saw coming.

The beginning of a seven-game conference losing streak, and the beginning of a 13-game stretch that saw the Hoosiers post a 1-12 record.

In case you had forgotten where we are today, Indiana’s record is 17-14. Twelve of those losses came during that stretch, and it started in Michigan. It seems fitting that the losing streak would end in Michigan, too.

February 2nd, 2019 – Is that hope I feel?

EAST LANSING, MI – FEBRUARY 02: Indiana Hoosiers celebrates 79 – 75 win against Michigan State Spartans at Breslin Center on February 2, 2019 in East Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)

A dejected Hoosiers squad, in the middle of that seven-game losing streak, made the trek up to East Lansing. Not only were the Hoosiers squaring off with then-#6 Michigan State, but College Gameday was in town. The crowd was more electric than usual in the Breslin Center.

And somehow, some way: Archie Miller earned his signature win as head coach of the Hoosiers, as they knocked off the Spartans 79-75 in overtime.

Without Juwan Morgan, and without Zach McRoberts.

McRoberts missed the whole contest, while Morgan left the game after just 13 minutes with a shoulder injury and did not return.

You can count me among the Hoosier fans who thought this one was over as soon as Morgan got hurt.

But Indiana kept it close. They were down three at half. They chipped away. And thanks to a Herculean team effort and horrendous foul shooting by Michigan State (8-22 from the line!), the Hoosiers pulled off the upset and stunned the Spartan faithful in East Lansing.

Romeo Langford paced the Hoosiers with 19 points, and like the game against Marquette, five Hoosiers were in double figures: Al Durham (14), Justin Smith (13), De’Ron Davis (12, including the game-clinching free throws), and Devonte Green (11).

Indiana, though barely chugging along at 13-9 (4-7 Big Ten), was still alive.

February 19th, 2019 – Bitter loss to a hated rival

BLOOMINGTON, INDIANA – FEBRUARY 19: Justin Smith #3 of the Indiana Hoosiers shoots the ball against the Purdue Boilermakers at Assembly Hall on February 19, 2019 in Bloomington, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

But the Michigan State win wasn’t the turn-around point in the season. Not even close.

In one of the ugliest basketball games I have ever watched, Indiana couldn’t defend its home court against its most hated rival, losing to Purdue 48-46 on a Matt Haarms tip-in with 3.1 seconds remaining.

It was perfect karma, of course, as the Hoosier students directed a particularly foul chant at Haarms during the game.

Indiana did everything right against Purdue, except score the basketball.

The over/under was set for the game at 137 points, a modest total. But the two teams couldn’t even break 100.

Purdue shot 31% from the field, Indiana 27%. Both teams made 20% from beyond the arc. And neither team was great from the free throw line: Purdue was 4-9, while Indiana was 11-18.

Romeo Langford again led the Hoosiers in scoring with 14. He was the only Hoosier in double figures.

Purdue’s only player in double figures? Ryan Cline (11 points).

Indiana’s defense (and his poor shot selection) kept Carsen Edwards to just 9 points on 4-24 shooting. Edwards was just awful the entire night, but the Hoosiers still couldn’t manage to beat the Boilers. Edwards took 40% of Purdue’s shots alone, missing 20 (!) of them, and still.

And still.

Week of February 25th – March 2nd, 2019 – Clawing back

BLOOMINGTON, IN – MARCH 02: Justin Smith #3 of the Indiana Hoosiers and Devonte Green #11 of the Indiana Hoosiers congratulate near the end of the game against the Michigan State Spartans at Assembly Hall on March 2, 2019 in Bloomington, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

At points during the 1-12 stretch, it sure seemed like the Hoosiers had given up. Like they had just completely thrown in the towel on the season.

They didn’t.

The week after the loss at home to Purdue, followed by a heartbreaker in overtime in Iowa City, Indiana was back at home to host the #19 Wisconsin Badgers.

And as much as they tried to give the game away in the 2nd half and both overtimes, Indiana made one more play than Wisconsin did and upset the Badgers, winning 75-73 in double overtime.

The hero this time? Romeo, of course.

When Indiana needed a basket the most, they turned to Langford.

He delivered.

Langford crossed his defender, drove hard to the right, and laid the ball in off the glass with 0.7 seconds left to give the Hoosiers the victory.

Poor foul shooting again was a factor in the win, as the Badgers went 13-25 from the line. Star senior forward Ethan Happ scored 23 points and pulled down 11 rebounds, but missed half of his 10 free throws.

The Hoosiers were alive again, but the week wasn’t over.

On Saturday, March 2nd, Indiana played host to the #6 Michigan State Spartans, who were seeking revenge.

They never found it.

The Hoosiers scored the final seven points of the game, holding Michigan State scoreless over the last 4:15, and upset the Spartans once again.

The star of the game was Justin Smith, the sophomore forward who had shown flashes of greatness, but never seemed to be able to harness the full star power that Tom Crean and Rob Judson thought he possessed when they recruited him, and the same star power that led Archie Miller to keep him on the roster when he was hired.

Smith scored 24 points, 4 rebounds, and had just a single turnover in 35 minutes of game time. He had been benched earlier in the season, and reinserted in the starting lineup later on. This game was when he proved he belonged.

In a game where Juwan Morgan and Romeo Langford combined for only 16 points, Smith stepped up, and so did Devonte Green, who added 13 of his own, including shooting 3-5 from three point range.

The team effort, including a massive individual defensive effort by Rob Phinisee against Michigan State’s Big Ten Player of the Year Cassius Winston on the game’s final possession, gave the Hoosiers the regular season sweep over the Spartans.

Today – March 11th, 2019

So, where does Indiana stand today?

Again, the record is 17-14 (8-12 Big Ten). They have six Quadrant 1 wins, which is the newest fancy way for statisticians and analysts to group teams based on performance. They’ll be the #9 seed in the Big Ten Tournament and play Ohio State on Thursday at 12:30 EST. As I detailed above, that game could potentially be an elimination game for the NCAA Tournament, as Ohio State is currently in (but squarely on the bubble), and Indiana is currently out (but squarely on the bubble).

If the Hoosiers beat the Buckeyes on Thursday, a rematch – for the third time – with Michigan State awaits on Friday. This season has taught me to never say never with the Hoosiers, but beating the co-Big Ten Champions a third time in one year? That’s tough.

If Indiana can somehow beat the Spartans for a third time, there’s no doubt in my mind that they’ll be rewarded with an NCAA Tournament berth. Of course, if they just win the whole conference tournament, that’d make it easy on everyone involved.

What are the other scenarios?

Well, if Indiana beats Ohio State but loses to Michigan State, they are still firmly in the conversation. As much as I want to say they’ve done enough at that point to get in, it wouldn’t surprise me if they do get left out of the field of 68 on Selection Sunday. They might be rewarded with a top seed in the NIT, but that’s not what the Hoosiers have been playing for this season.

On the other hand, if the Buckeyes win on Thursday, Indiana’s season is over. Again, they would likely earn an invitation to the NIT, but the NCAA Tournament would be entirely out of reach. There’s no scenario where the Hoosiers get into the field with a loss on Thursday; I just can’t see it happening.

If nothing else, the Hoosiers have at least taken a few years off of all of our lives this season. It could be all over on Thursday, and the stress of Indiana basketball could all melt away until next year.

Or, it could just be getting started.

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