My Two Cents: Indiana's Growth a Glass-Half-Full Thing

Tom Brew

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — When Indiana's lopsided basketball schedule came out during the summer, I had a scary thought about this Hoosiers team filled with unknown and uncertainty.

They could win every game in November, I thought.

And they could lose every game in December.

Do I still feel that way? Of course not. Indiana is 6-0 and doing its part to win all its November games, and looking good — for the most part — in the process. They beat Louisiana Tech — its toughest November test — 88-75 on Monday night and will finish the month with South Dakota State on Saturday.

The Twitter trolls, of course, are convinced that Indiana stinks and hasn't done a darn thing yet. They would be wrong, of course, but also know this:

Just because they've played a week schedule doesn't mean a darn thing in determining the result of their first December game against Florida State next Tuesday.

Quite frankly, there's been plenty of good to come out of the first six games. They've seen a lot of different styles of play, which certainly will help down the road. They've negated full court presses (North Alabama), handled some good big men (Princeton), and have executed offensively at a very high level just about every night. They're in the top four in the country in scoring and field goal percentage.

Louisiana Tech was supposed to be the great barometer game for me, because they were the best team — by far — on Indiana's November schedule. They were No. 87 out of 353 in the kenpom.com national rankings coming into Monday's game, a far cry from the 200-plus rankings of the other six November foes.

And what did Indiana show me? A lot. A heck of a lot. They looked very good for long stretches. And you could tell from the first whistle that they knew too that this game was going to be different — and more important.

"We were facing a good team tonight, and we had a week (of practice) where we amped it up,'' Indiana junior guard Al Durham said. "We wanted to come in and make a statement. We wanted to play hard and wanted to set the tone early and not wait. 

"We wanted to set the tone early, that's what we did.''

Indiana raced out to a 39-16 lead against one of the better teams from Conference USA, pounding the ball inside with great success (10-of-14 shooting at one point), hitting 3-pointers (4-of-6) and making all their free throws (5-of-5) during the run.

Stretches like that tell me that this is Archie Miller's best team in his two-plus years at Indiana. True freshman Trayce Jackson-Davis is a legitimate star, certainly one of the best two or three newcomers in the league. Butler transfer Joey Brunk does all the blue-collar work inside, and he's a constant banger. And Justin Smith, when he wants to be, can be really dangerous, too.

Durham was great at the point, pushing the ball up quickly, and senior Devonte Green, who missed three games with a hamstring injury, showed off his value as a scorer by getting a quick 15 points. The ball moved — quickly. Players moved — quickly. And Indiana's offense looked very good. 

"I thought we got off to a really good start,'' Indiana coach Archie Miller said. "Our guards did a really good job early in the game of attacking in transition. I thought they made the game pretty easy early. And we were able to build a comfortable lead.

"We shared the ball when they went zone. Our bigs did a good job of moving it. And we were unselfish and we made some really good looks. And Devonte got going there early in the first half.''

The biggest mistake fans make is trying to take what they've seen so far and flash it forward through March. It doesn't work. And Indiana fans should know that. Last year's nonconference schedule was different from this — and it was absolutely no predictor of an Indiana team losing 12 of 13 games in the Big Ten.

So stop whining. This is a different Indiana team from a year ago, and that's a very good thing.

Here's what we know about this team so far, if you want to compare it to last year. Indiana is much better on the interior. They score effectively down there, they are passing better out of double teams and, most importantly, they get to the free throw line — and converting.. That's all good stuff.

Can they do that against better foes in December?

I don't see why not. The adjustments in Indiana's offense year over year are obvious, especially when they don't get stuck in the mud. When the ball is moving, it's crisp and they are getting good shots. Those will come against anybody.

What will still be a concern, though, come December, is if Indiana's guard play can hold up. They miss Rob Phinisee big time — something the Twitter trolls overlook — because he is Indiana's best facilitator on offense and its best on-ball defender, by far. 

A lot of the issues that might still haunt this team — like some of the sloppy passing and lazy closeouts on shooters that we saw in the second half Monday — would simply be cured by Phinisee's presence. He's got an abdominal thing going, plus a rib injury and he took a shot to the face last week, too. He's hit a stretch of tough luck health wise, and he's barely been able to practice since early October.

Hopefully he'll be back to help flip the page to December on the calendar. Indiana needs him. 

What I choose to do now, though, is look at the positives we've seen from this team so far. They're doing a lot of good things for long stretches, and those stretches keep getting longer and longer every game.

Point spreads don't mean anything in basketball, but it is a nice determinant if you are exceeding expectations, and Indiana has done that, "covering'' in five of six games. They've been better than the experts thought, at least so far.

But keep this in mind: Florida State comes to town on Tuesday night. They are on the edge of being a top-25 team right now and they are very good. Indiana's probably top-35, and that might be generous. So let's keep it real. Indiana will need to play well to beat them. If I had to guess, Florida State will probably be favored.

But I've seen enough good things in November to think they can win. That's my glass being more than half full. 

And all that will matter that night is those 40 minutes. The 280 minutes of November don't count. So enjoy the ride. It's been fun so far. Indiana showed us it could be darn good on Monday night for most of the first half, and the fans, who were loud and really into the game, had a blast.

The glass is half-full. More, really. They've learned a lot in November, and that's good because this is, for the most part, still a very young team. 

There won't be an 0-6 December for sure. And if they go 4-2  or 3-3 in December, that's not the end of the world either, or is that much of a precursor for what comes the rest of the year.

Just play. Just enjoy. And we'll add up all the wins and losses in the end.

 

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