BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — How can Indiana be so bad one night and then be so good the next?
It's simple really. All it took was a switch.
One little switch and there was fragile ol' Indiana smacking around No. 11 Ohio State on Saturday, winning 66-54 at Simon Skojdt Assembly Hall.
And no, we're not talking about Rob Phinisee entering the starting lineup for the first time all year and a struggling Devonte Green being dispatched to the bench.
We're not talking about Archie Miller caving in to his frustrations and only playing five guys instead of the usual 10 or 11. There were indeed substitutions, despite his threats after the Hoosiers were horrifically bad against Northwestern on Wednesday night before stealing a win late.
No, this switch was all with Miller himself. Indiana's fiery at times and gum-smacking at all times coach made the switch Saturday, and it may have turned this teetering season around for the Hoosiers.
He dumped the black cherry Ice Breakers gum for grape, And now, going forward, grape it's going to be.
"It is the most fantastic gum that has ever been made,'' Miller said with a smile. "They have all these flavors, and they're in this plastic thing that you can open up and just dump in your mouth. The black cherry was my go-to for a long time, but grape was the flavor of the day here today.
"I think I had grape the last time that we had played well at home where I felt we played well, so I went with grape and I stuck with it, and without question grape is now the go-to as we move forward.''
We can laugh about the gum, of course, because this was the first time in a while that sky wasn't falling the Hoosiers. For the past month, even when they won, it was bad. They beat Notre Dame in December, but blew a 17-point leading the process. They were behind by 10 to Northwestern Wednesday, and the Wildcats are a train wreck. (Though their purple uniforms do match the grape gum.) The fractured and on-edge fan base was teetering on a collective breakdown.
And those are the wins.
The recent losses involved blowing an 11-point second-half lead to Arkansas by getting outscored 19-3 in the final eight minutes. Getting blown out at Maryland last Saturday by sulking through a 35-8 run in the second half after only trailing by three was even worse. Shoes were thrown at TV sets, from every corner of the Hoosier state.
And then, suddenly, a turnaround
We called this team fragile, and we were right. They were. Hell, they ARE. But Saturday they did something no one saw coming, especially after Wednesday.
They played hard. They cared. They played with heart. They played, dare I say in Indiana football parlance, liked they Love Each Other. It was a total team effort, and it was the biggest win of the year, even bigger than the December win over Florida State.
"Our guys gave (the Assembly Hall fans) something to cheer about today,'' Miller said. "They played hard. Played very together. Played against obviously not only a well-coached team but an excellent team that has a chance to ... make a deep run in March.
"I thought we got our head out of the mud after Wednesday. We were fortunate to win Wednesday, but we got our attitude, we got our heads together and guys were ready to go today. We had probably as good of a defensive game as we've played overall, if you look at the numbers. We did some really good things there.''
What we couldn't see behind the drawn curtains of Assembly Hall was that this team didn't let Wednesday night's disaster carry over one bit. Miller and players alike talked about how great practices were on Thursday and Friday, and that collectively they expected to come out and play well Saturday, even against an Ohio State team "that has mauled us the past couple of years,'' Miller said.
The true switch that really made the difference was Phinisee being inserted into the starting lineup for the first time all year. Let's make this perfectly clear. Rob Phinisee is a STARTING point guard. Sure, injuries and time management sort of forced him to the bench early, but this is what he does. He is, without question, in the upper echelon of point guards in the Big Ten.
All he did was come right out on Indiana's first possession and knock down a 3-pointer. He knocked down two more, and in the first three-plus minutes of the game, Indiana had scored on all six possessions and Phinisee had nine points.
Green, who's up-and-down career at Indiana has been well chronicled, started the game on the bench and we had no idea when — or even if, really — he'd be coming off. But there he was, five minutes in, making his way onto the floor.
He wound up playing nearly 30 minutes and was 5-for-8 from the field, including 2-for-3 from the 3-point line. He attacked the basket, mostly under control, and made 7 of 11 free throws. He finished with 19 points, tops on the Hoosiers.
Good Devonte. Bad Devonte. It seems like these two guys have never met. A bad game just rolls right off the senior from North Babylon, N.Y.
Like Wednesday night — the 0-for-6 shooting, stupid turnovers, shoddy defense Wednesday night — never happened.
Come off the bench? No big deal.
Impact the game in a major way? Well, sure.
"The game never changes. I mean, some days it's good, some days it's bad,'' Green said. "And you've just got to bounce back from the bad ones. So that was the mindset I had coming into today, to the next day, and to every day moving forward. I always want to have a better day than the last, bad or good.
"I try to lead the guys on the floor every time I'm on the floor. I guess today I just happened to be a big part of the bench, but everybody that came off the bench did play well and did what they needed to do in order for us to get this win. I'd say it's been more productive.''
Battling to the finish, with no backing down
And lastly, we can't finish our round of applause without bringing up junior forward Joey Brunk. He only scored seven points and had five rebounds, but the job he did on Ohio State's Kaleb Wesson — the best big man in the country, according to Miller — was exceptional. Wesson was just 3-for-11 from the field, mostly against Brunk, and only ONE of those baskets came in the paint. The others were 3-pointers.
That's some grape-gum defense there.
"When you play against Ohio State, it comes down to one thing — You get manhandled,'' Miller said. "You get manhandled when you play them. You've got to deal with big Kaleb, who's just a load in there. Can you get away with playing him one-on-one and not give up threes? And I thought our big guys hung in pretty tough.
I thought (Brunk) played hard, and for the first time that we've ever played Ohio State, we were able to hold serve one-on-one. He has mauled us for two years. You're going to have to play really hard and give him some different looks, you're on your own. I thought Joey battled. I thought he played really, really hard.''
Crack research from sources close to Miller say that the gum of choice is Ice Breakers, though media relations director J.D. Campbell would neither confirm or deny the investigative report. There was no evidence of any gum containers near the Indiana bench (Yes, sadly, I did walk out from the press room to the court to check.)
All we know in this results-oriented businesses is that the switch to grape worked. And when we wondered if Indiana could even win another game this month, suddenly we look at it all completely different.
Now we see the Hoosiers as 3-2 in the Big Ten and 13-3 overall. We see them as basically second in the Big Ten behind only unbeaten Michigan State, with a huge group of seven teams all bunched up with two losses.
But now instead of Bloodbath January, we're wondering if Indiana now can't go on the road next week to Rutgers (Wednesday) and Nebraska (Saturday) — the dumbest logisitical road trip ever — and suddenly win a couple of games.
It's Rutgers and Nebraska, after all. Why not think of those as winnable games?
We check our enthusiasm at the door, of course, because this team hasn't shown us consistency yet this year. Not for 40 minutes at a time, not for days — or even weeks — at a time.
So let's just enjoy Saturday for what it is, and hope the good times can continue. For Miller, For Green. For all of them
"He did a really good job (Friday) in practice,'' Miller said of Green. "He did a really good job today, and then we just wake up tomorrow and hopefully we're going to see him do a good job tomorrow because it is what it is.
"Because I'll tell you, when he plays well, we're a different team.''
Different? Yep, no doubt.
Grape, it is.