BLOOMINGTON – Did Indiana get a win against Nebraska? Yes. Did the Hoosiers look good doing it? Not in the slightest.
This might be the sloppiest Big Ten win I've covered in my three seasons watching the Hoosiers. Indiana did everything it could to give this game away in regulation before finally snapping to attention and bailing itself out in the overtime to win 96-90.
The mistakes came from all over the roster, veterans and youngsters alike, and covered every facet of the game. The Hoosiers made bad, lazy passes on offense that led to 15 turnovers and 21 points off those takeaways for Nebraska. On defense, Indiana missed rotations, committed silly fouls (including a truly head-scratching undercutting of a 3-point shooter with a 4-point lead late in the second half by Al Durham) and generally couldn't stay in front of their men on the perimeter. Guards Dachon Burke and Haanif Cheatham combined for 46 points for the Cornhuskers. After the game, coach Archie Miller – who spent much of the night yelling and gesticulating in frustration on the sideline as his team struggled to put the inferior Nebraska team away – was blunt about his team's defensive performance.
"We can't guard the ball," Miller said. "Guard your man. Keep it as simple as that right now. We're getting picked on on the bounce. And those guys (Burke and Cheatham) really exposed us to start the game. Our guard play right now, defensively, isn't very good on the other teams' guys. And I would say just in general tonight we were very spaced out, very man conscious, not very good from a positioning standpoint.
"And comparably to how hard we played and what we had to do on Tuesday, we were five steps too slow. Maybe that has a lot to do with the trip, but there's not a whole lot of excuses when it comes down to it. We have to get a lot better guarding the ball and we've shown we can be better. But in our two Big Ten games here in December, we've gotten – our defense has gotten shredded."
This was clearly a message the players had internalized as well. When Justin Smith was asked how satisfied the team was with its defense, he leaned into the microphone and said, flatly:
"Not at all."
The follow-up came: what can the Hoosiers do better on that end of the floor?
"A lot. Everything."
Yes, it was an entertaining night at Assembly Hall, but Indiana did not play to the level it needs to in order to be an NCAA Tournament team. This is a Nebraska team that will not sniff March Madness this year and the Hoosiers struggled for much of the night. Between this and the big loss at Wisconsin, it's not a particularly encouraging 1-1 start to the Big Ten season for the Hoosiers and I haven't even mentioned their 5-for-25 performance from beyond the arc yet.
That is not to say this game was without positives, however. The best parts of the matchup were anytime Trayce Jackson-Davis or Robert Phinisee had the ball after halftime. Those two combined for 33 points in the second half and OT and fed off each other all night. Jackson-Davis was magnificent again, pouring in 22 points after halftime and getting the Hoosiers basket after basket when they needed it most. Even if he's not the best freshman in the country (he certainly has to be in the conversation), he absolutely has more responsibility than just about any other first-year player. The Hoosiers have learned to lean on him and he has delivered in the biggest moments.
"I didn't necessarily think he was great in the first half, or as aggressive," Miller said of Jackson-Davis. "But he turned it up a notch in the second half. And every single basket that he made, we needed. It wasn't like he got one that was an easy one or what not. Every basket he got, we needed. And he had a great second half, he really did."
As for Phinisee, he seems to be fully healthy, finally. After missing five games with a variety of ailments, he played 26 minutes off the bench tonight and scored 16 points on 6-of-10 shooting and added four assists. In the overtime, he drove to the basket twice for layups and nailed a huge 3 that made it a six-point cushion. Indiana is a different team when the sophomore point guard is on the floor and it counts on him to handle pressure late in close games. He did that tonight.
"Very satisfying, actually," Phinisee said of helping his team late after being out so long with injuries. "I mean, really made shots for my team when they needed it. Really just tried to make a big play when we needed it."
Unfortunately, the reason Phinisee had to play so much was because Devonte Green suffered an Achilles injury in the second half and did not return. He limped off the court on his own and was on the bench (rather than in the locker room), so it's possible the injury isn't very serious, but Miller did not have an update. If Green is out, it's a huge blow to this offense, which needs the senior's outside shooting to help space the floor for Jackson-Davis and the other big men.
Tonight was not an impressive performance for the Hoosiers, but it's always better to learn your lessons in sloppy wins rather than disappointing losses. That Indiana was able to pull itself together after an awful end to regulation and roll through the overtime says something about the resilience this team has developed. Now IU has a week before the Crossroads Classic to work (a lot) on the fundamentals.