BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – It was still early in the first half, but Indiana was already down by double digits to Iowa and things were ugly for the Hoosiers. Seven minutes gone, 17-4 down, and Indiana was already looking done.
Archie Miller looked down the Indiana bench – which was comprised solely of Indiana's four freshman at the start of the game – and shouted to Khristian Lander to check in.
And just like that, things changed.
On Indiana's first possession, Lander, the young point guard from Evansville, Ind., made a perfect pass to Race Thompson, who scored. Then freshman Anthony Leal had a steal, and hit fellow freshman Jordan Geronimo for a layup on the other end. A minute later, it was another Leal steal and another Geronimo hoop, this time an emphatic dunk. Freshman Trey Galloway had a rebound and was fouled, hitting a free throw.
The freshmen were taking control. They were doing it together. And they weren't done.
Down the stretch in the final three minutes of the half, Leal hit two three-pointers and Lander hit another one. Just like that, the Hoosiers skipped off to the locker room with a 33-31 lead.
"I thought the freshmen did a great job for us,'' Miller said. "They changed the game, as they have done for us, and they have done that for us many times.''
When it was all said and done on Sunday, the Hoosiers had a 67-65 win over then-No. 8 Iowa, and the four freshmen combined for 19 points, nine rebounds, five assists and four steals.
They are growing, finally, right before our eyes. The vaunted freshman class, which has struggled to find its way this season, is finally starting to make an impact.
“To watch those guys come in, get hit around, get knocked down, it’s not easy,” Miller said. “Sometimes guys pick up and leave. Sometimes they don’t get back up. These four guys have hung with it good and they have made us better.
“Not to say the other guys on the team aren’t working the same way, but in particular if you are talking about the freshmen, you see them at the worst, at the youngest part of their adult lives. When they’re able to see some good out of the work that they have put in, that’s really rewarding.”
That is exactly what's happening.
Younger than young, but learning quickly
Khristian Lander should be a senior in high school right now, focusing on getting Evansville Reitz on a late-season run and enjoying home-cooked meals with his family every night. Instead, he enrolled at Indiana a year early and the five-star guard has tried to find his way – in the middle of a pandemic no less, and sequestered for most of his day in Indiana's little COVID-preventing bubble.
It's been a hard go for the 6-foot-2, 180-pound left-hander. He has struggled mightily on the defensive end, and in games where he was overmatched, he'd only get a few minutes of playing time. His shooting was an issue early, too. He was just 5-for-22 shooting from three (22.7 percent) in Indiana's first 15 games.
But then in the last three games, he's made five more threes. He's made good passes, spaced the floor well and has started to make a difference.
“If you look at Khristian Lander right now, he's saved us in a couple games. Especially (Sunday against Iowa), he made some plays for us,” Miller said. “A month ago, he was really struggling. To his credit, as a young person, to be able to come to practice every day, to be able to lift weights extra, to be able to get in the gym extra with the coaches, to care that much about staying with it, that says a lot about him.
“He's been finding his way. Offensively, he's always been very talented. We've seen glimpses of him at times, shooting the ball well. He's got a different gear with the ball.”
It's taken time for Lander to get comfortable, but what has never wavered was his willingness to work hard to get better. That hasn't been debatable, with Lander and all of his freshmen teammates.
"I just feel like the work is paying off, and I'm getting more opportunity,'' Lander said Tuesday when he met with the media ahead of Wednesday's game at Northwestern. "Once I get more opportunity and keep proving myself, it helps getting my confidence up.
"As long as you put the hard work in, it's going to be seen by somebody. And coach has seen the hard work I've put in, and he's been giving me more opportunity.''
Miller, more than anyone, understands how hard it can be to find your way in college basketball as a freshman, especially when you're in the middle of a brutal 20-game Big Ten schedule. Every single game is a war. And there are going to be rough nights, especially for teenagers still learning the ropes.
"You have to be able to understand as a group that there are going to be some rough waters,'' Miller said. "There are going to be some really high moments with wins because every team that you play is really good. It feels so good to be able to battle it out and get one. You are also going to have some opportunities where you are going to have some hard losses, and the big thing is just to stay with it day-to-day.
"We talk about it all the time. Just be the master of the moment that you are in, and to me that is what our team has done a pretty good job of. Of being resilient, having a good attitude every day. You have a collective group that continues to try to work to get better. I think that's why you are seeing so many of our young guys here in the last three or four weeks emerge because we are staying with it, and there is still so much ball left to be played.''
Hard work will define this freshman class. Their coaches have seen it, and their teammates have seen it too.
"Props to the young guys. They bring it to practice every single day, even when they weren't getting the minutes they would have wanted,'' Indiana junior Race Thompson said. "That shows the work they put in. Anthony, Khristian, Trey, Jordan, they come to the gym non-stop, off days, late nights, working, working, working. I'm just glad to see all their hard work pay off.''
It means a lot to Lander, too.
"We are all putting in crazy amount of work, we're always in the gym getting extra lifts, extra shots up and doing skills workouts,'' Lander said. "Once we get in the game, it's about showing all the work we put in. That's what we do.''
Finishing strong in final month
Indiana is 10-8 overall now and 5-6 in the Big Ten heading into Wednesday night's game in Evanston. The NCAA Tournament bracketologists have Indiana in the field right now, but a big finish is necessary. Miller knows that; the players do to.
"I'm hopeful that our young guys continue to build, because they have made us better,'' Miller said. "We feel much more confident now about our group being able to play a lot of different combinations. In both games last week, there were times where we had four true freshmen on the floor with either Race or Trayce (Jackson-Davis).
"To me, there are very few teams in the league who are playing with four true freshmen at different times against really good teams. So that's going to be a big part of us as we move forward and try to develop our depth and get those guys more opportunities because they have made us better. I think that's where we're at right now.''
Geronimo has proven himself as a defender and rebounder, and Leal has been doing a lot of good things lately on both sides of the floor. He's pulling the trigger when he's open now, something he wasn't doing earlier.
Galloway was the first freshman to earn a lot of playing time, and he was in the starting lineup early. He's missed time lately with a back injury, and is still playing hurt. But he, too, adds a lot to this team.
"Trey has a high basketball IQ. He's a gym rat, and he works on his game,'' Miller said. "He is the one guy who really embodies when things aren’t going well, he has a knack to huddle our team and do some things out there that probably don’t stand out on the stat sheet. The biggest gift he has is that he's very unselfish, and he knows how to play. He is probably our best passer when it comes down to an assist-type of plays.''
The four freshmen are also roommates, so they are together constantly. They are all such good friends that they are great about lifting each other up. And they all love to work, so spending extra time in the gym together is never a problem. They all love it.
"This team has just stayed with each other, and you keep it positive, you keep your work environment very, very efficient, the best you can every day,'' Miller said. "You try to really focus on improving because really there are a lot of things you can improve on to help your team, and that's what we have tried to do. But I definitely think our guys, when you talk about resiliency have showed a great attitude, and have had very few down moments in terms of being able to come back.
"We've had some very, very difficult losses this year, overtimes, double overtimes where you can get down in the dumps. I do think our group has done a good job and we have more guys right now playing better, and that's the quest to be able to find something here at the end of the year you can hang your hat on. And to me, our group has hung their hat on just coming every day trying to get better, having a great attitude, and being ready for the next opportunity that you have.''
Lander has coaches and teammates he talks to when the moments get tough. The mental side of the college basketball adjustment doesn't get talked about enough.
"I talk to my coaches on the coaching staff, my teammates, my parents.'' he said. "I just try to stay calm. I know my hard work will pay off at the end of the day. As long as I keep working hard it will pay off.''
He knows where he can get better, too, and that's what makes the journey interesting. He's learning as he goes, and he's getting better every day.
"I feel like offensively I was pretty comfortable from the start, but defensively was what I really needed to work on. There were a lot of smaller things to learn, and I'm just continuing to build on that.
"Coach let me know that I needed to get better on the defensive end of the floor, and it really wasn't about my physical ability. It was more about being smart and being in the right places. You just keep picking things up and working on it.''