The Indiana Hoosiers saved their season from the brink Saturday night, upsetting the highly favored #6 Michigan State Spartans. The win was also captured in East Lansing, something that has only happened twice before for the Hoosiers since the 1990-1991 season. The victory more importantly ended a 7 game skid in the Big Ten for Indiana, their longest losing streak in nearly 8 years. As much as Indiana fans want to praise this team’s toughness and perseverance, Indiana is still broken and far from being fixed. The Hoosiers managed to get balanced scoring with 5 players in double-figures since their first real challenge against Marquette in mid November. But Indiana is still no where close to having their reputation restored this season or in the full landscape of college basketball prestige. It was expected that Indiana would open their season undefeated against schools like Chicago State and Montana State. Yet the highly-touted Hoosiers needed to battle their way back against cupcake opponents like UT Arlington who only trailed Indiana by one point with less than 7:00 to go in the 2nd half. Not to mention their next game against UC Davis where the Hoosiers only held a five point lead with under 4:00 to go in that contest. As for their wins over Northwestern, Penn State, & Butler, the average margin of victory in those games was 2 points. It truly is a positive sign that the Hoosiers are battle tested, having won so many closely contested games like those in hostile environments. But one missed shot here, one turnover or a loose ball there, and Indiana is looking at a dramatically different season. Just a few weeks ago the Hoosiers were ranked with a 12-1 overall record going into Big Ten play. But they are now unranked, having fallen to 13-9 overall with a still dismal 4-7 record in the Big Ten. The Hoosiers are lucky to have as many victories as they have and could easily be 6-16 taking into account all of their close calls this season. A win is a win. But many wins for the Hoosiers this season, against average teams at best, could have easily gone the other way.
It’s fair that Indiana has struggled a little bit too considering that head coach Archie Miller is only in his second season with the Hoosiers. He has been forced to use a team mostly recruited by his predecessor Tom Crean. A fair assessment of the job Archie has done in Bloomington cannot even begin to be criticized until at least year four when most of Crean’s recruits have left and Archie’s are brought in. The task of rebuilding a program with talent, alongside handling the pressure of Indiana’s past success, recent mediocrity, and an overly anxious fan base is also no easy task.
The Big Ten is one of college basketball’s toughest conferences. The top of the conference is still flourishing with Michigan and Michigan State being highly regarded every year. But teams who were previously considered after thoughts and easy wins like Northwestern, Illinois, Nebraska, and Rutgers are slowly getting better. Yet Indiana’s program has remained stagnant or regressed in comparison to those squads. The evidence to suggest this, is the fact that Indiana has appeared in only one Final Four since 2002, not winning a championship since 1987. Indiana fans are well aware of this prolonged stint of mediocrity. But what makes objective observers upset with Indiana Basketball fans is the false hope they have every year in wanting to regain the program's championship luster from more than 30 years ago. One win over a single quality opponent shouldn’t generate this kind of hope. It also shouldn’t lead to the ridiculous expectations set by this delusional fan base every season. Year to year two to five schools are capable of winning a championship. These teams include programs like Duke and Kentucky who usually have the most NBA ready talent. Other contenders would also include teams like Villanova, Michigan, and Michigan State with their program’s experienced coaches and seasoned players. Beyond that, teams have to fall into some luck to get beyond the second round of the tournament. While some might disagree, it’s not a coincidence why the same teams make deep tournament runs each year. Quality talent and coaching are the two deciding factors in the tournament every year, which Indiana has failed to show either of those in their recent history.
While Indiana does have some talent, they have been plagued by injuries this season. Indiana will more than likely be without Juwan Morgan for an extended period, who injured a previously surgically repaired shoulder against the Spartans. Indiana’s resolve was impressive without their leader in Morgan against the Spartans, but not having him is a major blow to an already thin rotation. Morgan’s replacement De’ron Davis logged a season-high 25 minutes in his absence, but Davis himself has dealt with ankle and Achilles tendon injuries, limiting his time on the floor. As proud as Indiana fans should be, Michigan State lost this contest more than Indiana won it.
Michigan State failed against Indiana by not capitalizing on mistakes, making adjustments too late, and by taking the gritty Hoosiers too lightly throughout the game. The Spartans didn’t capitalize on a number of plays that kept the Hoosiers in the game. Just one of the problem areas for Michigan State was the lack of success at the free throw line. The Spartans were forced to take their physical post presence Nick Ward out of the game after he went 1 for 9 at the charity stripe. Had he converted on just half of those misses in winning time, Michigan State prevails with no issues. It also doesn’t help that the Spartans lost a double-figure scorer in Joshua Langford for the season this week. Had Langford been available for Michigan State, it would have supplemented their performance against Indiana. But that can’t be too much of an excuse with the Spartans, having won 6 of their previous 8 games without Langford before facing Indiana.
Even with the monumental win over the Spartans, the Hoosiers have still lost 7 of their last 8 games. These losses include one-sided thrashings from Purdue on the road 70-55 and at home against Michigan 69-46. Not to mention allowing a 22-0 run to a Big Ten bottom feeder in Rutgers in their last contest, leading to a 66-58 defeat against the Scarlet Knights. Indiana showed the toughness they have been lacking in recent games against Michigan State, but haven’t shown it consistently enough to prove it will be a common occurrence. Fans as a result should lower their expectations to avoid the disappointment of overly positive false hope.
Jimmy Kennedy, who believes Indiana fans are hopelessly over optimistic about their mediocre program, can be reached at email@example.com