Indiana coach Archie Miller could see a difference in his team during Sunday’s win over Iowa, a change from what transpired during a heartbreaking loss to Illinois.
But it wasn’t just missed shots or made shots. In film sessions after the Illinois defeat, Miller was showing his players what transpired after a couple of charges in overtime. He was focused on body language.
“You could just see the air coming out of our guys,” Miller said Monday on his radio show. “Our lack of being able to pick a guy up off the ground, our huddles. And then you look at Illinois’ energy level when they drew the charges, they started to believe in what they are doing.
“That’s when that toughness, that will to win, the mental side of things, it’s your leadership when you have to grind it out.”
Too many times this season, the Hoosiers (10-8, 5-6 Big Ten) haven’t been able to find a way to grind out games. That transpired versus Illinois, failing to secure 50-50 balls, but it also harkens back to the very first game of conference play, when IU collapsed late versus Northwestern and allowed Wildcat guard Chase Audige to pile up 17 second-half points.
But as the Hoosiers and Wildcats get set to meet again at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at Welsh-Ryan Arena, Miller can notice a difference in how his team is responding to adversity. It happened in the Iowa game, as players went to the floor and teammates came to offer a hand.
“We need to be much tougher when it comes to ‘next play.’ Against Iowa, we were in very similar situations,” Miller said. “You could see it in the film we showed the guys. You could see our guys picking guys up off the ground, huddling faster, and being more together. To me, that’s what it’s about. It’s about that will to win, it’s about that collective togetherness, it’s about that toughness. That you believe in each other.
“We were better in finishing against Iowa because we were more mindful of what it takes.”
There are multiple facets the Hoosiers will try and carry forward through the final half of this Big Ten schedule. One is their defense, which held Iowa to its two lowest point totals of the season in two wins. That togetherness translated to better overall play on that end of the floor, keeping the Hoosiers in a game where they shot just under 36 percent from the field.
But that togetherness also bred confidence, sustaining into the final moments when IU just needed a couple of big shots to win the game. Rob Phinisee, who hadn’t hit a shot all day, hit a big 3-pointer to tie it up at 61-all. Armaan Franklin, who was just 1-of-9 on the day, hit the game-winner on a step-back jumper.
The air didn’t come out of the Hoosiers, as it has too many times this conference season. They played with intensity, as they did for most of the Illinois contest, and all of the Iowa win. That’s what the Hoosiers need again as they head on the road to face Northwestern (6-10, 3-9), a team that has lost nine games in a row, but a team that has given IU fits.
“Like I told the guys, it doesn’t matter what we’ve done leading into this one, and it doesn’t matter what they’ve done leading into this one,” Miller said. “We know Northwestern is a good team and we are going to have to be really, really ready, and we are going to have to be a lot better than we were the last time.”
Last time, IU didn’t just have problems guarding Audige down the stretch. The Hoosiers’ offensive attack struggled versus the Wildcats’ array of looks, including a 3-2 zone, post traps on Trayce Jackson-Davis, and soft coverages on individual players who they were content to let shoot.
IU’s 16 turnovers only made matters worse in a 74-67 loss at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall.
“We are going to have to take care of it,” Miller said. “We are going to have to do a much better job defensively containing the ball than we did the first time we played them.”
The toughness the Hoosiers displayed in a win over Iowa should provide hope in better outcomes. Race Thompson continues to play a physical brand of basketball. Jackson-Davis continues to score in bunches. Franklin and Phinisee were both able to hit big shots. And while Al Durham isn’t hitting much, Miller does believe he’s playing better defense than he ever has.
With the emergence of multiple freshmen, including Khristian Lander and Jordan Geronimo more recently, there is a reason for optimism. Geronimo is 8-of-10 from the floor in four games, but it goes beyond that for Miller.
“As crazy as this sounds, he continues to help us on offense as much as anybody. He’s a physical screener. He’s very athletic, and he’s a very good touch passer,” Miller said.
Lander, on the other hand, has made some big 3s recently, but it’s his development defensively that’s allowed him to stay on the floor for longer stretches.
Miller specifically recalls a conversation he had with his freshman guard following a productive run in the first Iowa win. Up to that point, Miller was hesitant to put Lander in. He looked nervous at the start of games.
But he played well in some second-half minutes.
“You can do that once, you can do it twice. Why can’t you do that at practice every day and build on it?” Miller said. “You go from wanting to play to playing, to then wanting to play well, and now you gotta play to win. Now you’re impacting the whole ball of wax when you’re out there.”
In these small, incremental ways, Miller sees his team improving. In practice habits, in picking each other off the floor, in hitting big shots to win games.
It just has to continue.
“Things don’t change, win or lose. In this league, the best teams have an approach that they stick with,” Miller said. “I thought our guys’ attitude coming off the Illinois game was very good. We worked extremely hard to prepare for Iowa again. I thought defensively all week we played extremely hard.
“It’s over, though. It’s over. We’re back at it again.”